Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

Megaports Initiative Faces Funding and Sustainability Challenges

GAO-13-37: Published: Oct 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 28, 2012.

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What GAO Found

As of August 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had completed 42 of 100 planned Megaports projects in 31 countries and, as of December 2011, NNSA had spent about $850 million on the Megaports Initiative (Initiative). NNSA’s Initiative has equipped these seaports with radiation detection equipment, established training programs for foreign personnel, and created a sustainability program to help countries operate and maintain the equipment. However, the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal would reduce the Initiative’s budget by about 85 percent, and NNSA plans to shift the Initiative’s focus from establishing new Megaports to sustaining existing ones. As a result, NNSA has suspended ongoing negotiations and cancelled planned deployments of equipment in five countries.

Officials from the five countries GAO visited reported benefits of the Megaports Initiative, including increased capacity to interdict nuclear and radiological materials. However, GAO identified several factors that reduce the Initiative’s effectiveness. For example, NNSA has not finalized a long-term plan for ensuring the sustainability of Megaports operations after NNSA transfers radiation detection equipment to partner countries. Without a long-term plan for ensuring countries’ ability to continue Megaports operations, NNSA cannot be assured that its $850 million investment will be sustained. Moreover, the Initiative’s performance measures do not provide sufficient information for decision making because they do not evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the Initiative. GAO has previously reported that agencies successfully assess performance when they use measures that demonstrate results, cover multiple program priorities, and provide useful information for decision making. GAO also found that the Megaports Initiative and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Container Security Initiative (CSI)—a related program that examines high-risk shipping containers for weapons of mass destruction before they are shipped to the United States—are not sufficiently coordinating. The two Initiatives are co-located at 29 foreign seaports. In two countries, DHS officials told GAO that they were using personal radiation detectors—a type of equipment intended for personal safety but not appropriate for scanning containers—to inspect containers if their radiation detection equipment is broken. However, in both countries, the Megaports Initiative had more suitable equipment that DHS officials could have used.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA established the Megaports Initiative in 2003 to deter, detect, and interdict nuclear or other radiological materials smuggled through foreign seaports. The Initiative funds the installation of radiation detection equipment at select seaports overseas and trains foreign personnel to use this equipment to scan shipping containers entering and leaving these seaports—regardless of destination. NNSA provides partner countries with maintenance and technical support for about 3 years, after which it transfers the equipment and all related responsibilities to partner countries. GAO was asked to examine (1) the status of the Megaports Initiative and NNSA’s plans for completing and sustaining it and (2) the benefits of the Initiative and factors that reduce its effectiveness. GAO analyzed key documents; interviewed agency officials; and visited eight Megaports in five countries, selected on the basis of port size and unique characteristics, among other things.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that NNSA take actions, including (1) finalizing its long-term plan for ensuring the sustainability of Megaports operations after NNSA’s final transfer of equipment to partner countries and (2) developing and maintaining useful and reliable measures to assess the performance of the Initiative. GAO also recommends that NNSA and DHS jointly assess the extent to which the two Initiatives are effectively coordinating. NNSA and DHS agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact David Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Megaports Initiative is maximizing resources and protecting its investments of $850 million, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should finalize its draft sustainability plan for ensuring ongoing sustainability of Megaports operations after NNSA transfers all equipment, maintenance, operations, and related financial responsibilities to partner countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) finalized the Sustainability Program Plan for the Second Line of Defense (SLD) program--which includes the Megaports Initiative--in October 2012.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Megaports Initiative is maximizing resources and protecting its investments of $850 million, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should develop and maintain useful and reliable measures to assess the performance of the Megaports Initiative. These measures might include the number and type of interdictions, percentage of global maritime container traffic scanned, or length of time that countries sustain operations of the Megaports equipment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has introduced a new metric for the Second Line of Defense (SLD)--which includes the Megaports Initiative--to track the number of SLD sites and ports that are being sustained by NNSA partner countries. NNSA plans to use the new metric in fiscal year 2014 and plans to continue to review the metrics for the SLD program periodically and determine whether new metrics are needed.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Megaports Initiative is maximizing resources and protecting its investments of $850 million, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should terminate additional expenditures from the Megaports Initiative's budget for testing and evaluating SPMs. Additional testing and evaluation activities, if warranted, should be funded through other NNSA programs with a research and development mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Second Line of Defense (SLD) program--which includes the Megaports Initiative--did not complete any testing or evaluation of SPMs in FY13 and does not intend to in out years.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Megaports Initiative is maximizing resources and protecting its investments of $850 million, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should remove unused Megaports radiation detection equipment--particularly Spectroscopic Portal Monitors (SPMs) and Radiation Detection Straddle Carriers (RDSCs)--from storage on an expedited basis. This could be done, for example, by (1) providing the equipment to DOE national laboratories for research and further testing or (2) declaring the equipment as surplus inventory.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has developed a disposition plan for the Spectroscopic Portal Monitors (SPM). The program is currently nearing completion of the dispositioning of all SPMs in inventory through the donation of several units to partner countries and U.S. national laboratories and through removal of useful spare parts from the remainder of the units. NNSA has also identified potential locations for deploying the two Radiation Detection Straddle Carriers remaining in inventory and plans to conduct outreach to these locations in fiscal year 2014.

    Recommendation: To strengthen efforts to combat nuclear smuggling overseas, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Secretary of Homeland Security should, on a periodic basis, jointly assess the extent to which the Megaports Initiative and CSI are effectively leveraging resources and coordinating at foreign seaports where the two Initiatives are co-located. If the agencies determine based on these joint assessments that there is a need for increased coordination, they should develop written policies or procedures that formally document how to coordinate at ports to best leverage their resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection established Standard Operating Procedures that formalize coordination between the Second Line of Defense--which includes the Megaports Initiative--and the Container Security Initiative programs. Moreover, NNSA and DHS/CBP have agreed to hold quarterly calls to ensure that coordination continues and will update the Standard Operating Procedures document as necessary.

    Recommendation: To strengthen efforts to combat nuclear smuggling overseas, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Secretary of Homeland Security should, on a periodic basis, jointly assess the extent to which the Megaports Initiative and CSI are effectively leveraging resources and coordinating at foreign seaports where the two Initiatives are co-located. If the agencies determine based on these joint assessments that there is a need for increased coordination, they should develop written policies or procedures that formally document how to coordinate at ports to best leverage their resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection established Standard Operating Procedures that formalize coordination between the Second Line of Defense--which includes the Megaports Initiative--and the Container Security Initiative programs. Moreover, NNSA and DHS/CBP have agreed to hold quarterly calls to ensure that coordination continues and will update the Standard Operating Procedures document as necessary.

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