GAO Calls Radiation Monitors Unreliable

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security's plan to spend $1.2 billion deploying next-generation nuclear-detection equipment at U.S. ports and border crossings cannot be justified, given test results that showed the devices are unreliable, congressional investigators warned yesterday.

The department ignored its own tests showing the new monitors could not meet a standard of detecting enriched uranium 95 percent of the time, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm. When the nuclear material was shielded, detection rates ranged from 17 percent to 53 percent.

DHS also understated the project's costs by up to $181 million, GAO officials wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The department's cost-benefit "analysis does not justify its recent decision to spend $1.2 billion to purchase and deploy" the new radiation portal monitors, the GAO reported. Homeland Security "relied on potential future performance to justify the purchase," the agency said.

The report came four days after President Bush signed a $3.4 billion port-security bill that, among other things, requires new monitors to be deployed at the nation's 22 busiest ports by the end of 2007. Congress raced to pass the legislation last month before recessing for the midterm elections.

"We're going to protect our ports. We're going to defend this homeland. And we're going to win the war on terror," Bush said at a signing ceremony Friday.

In separate legislation last month, however, Congress barred full-scale production of the devices until the department certifies "a significant increase in operational effectiveness."

The GAO report warns that the Bush administration risks repeating earlier failures. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government spent $300 million on radiation monitors that could not tell uranium from cat litter or ceramic tile. They also had high false-alarm rates.

Existing monitors cost about $55,000. The new screening machines now cost at least $377,000 each, the GAO reported.

DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said the GAO missed the fact that the department is continuing to test and review devices produced by Thermo Electron Corp., Raytheon Co. and Canberra Industries Inc., which were awarded the business in July.

The DHS is testing 80 devices under a one-year contract before deciding whether to move ahead with a five-year program to deploy 1,400 screening machines at ports and border crossings.

"That 95 percent rate of effectiveness is a standard that we maintain. We are not going to put devices in the field unless they meet those high standards," Agen said.


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