Radiation-Monitor Study Sought

Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security chief, says experts plan to evaluate the effectiveness of radiation detection.
Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security chief, says experts plan to evaluate the effectiveness of radiation detection. (By Damian Dovarganes -- Associated Press)
By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has ordered an independent review of efforts to develop and test radiation monitors to screen cars, trucks and cargo containers for signs of nuclear devices.

In a letter to several lawmakers, Chertoff said the review by a "highly experienced team of technical and programmatic" experts would examine test procedures and results, and the department's own analysis about whether new monitors with cutting-edge technology are worth $1.2 billion in contracts announced last summer.

"This acquisition is a vital priority for the Department," Chertoff wrote to lawmakers Friday. "Given the national importance of this effort, I think it is important to have an independent review."

The department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office had told Congress last year that the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time, while the department's own tests show detection rates as no higher than about 50 percent.

A review by the Government Accountability Office later found that Homeland Security's optimistic report to Congress, about the cost and benefits of the new monitors, was based on assumptions instead of facts. In a March hearing, a GAO official said the information in the cost-benefit report "was incomplete and unreliable, and as a result, we do not have any confidence in it."

At issue is a highly technical debate about whether the machines, Advanced Spectroscopic Portal radiation monitors, can significantly improve detection of different kinds of radiation. Since 2001, the government has spent more than $200 million on detection equipment that often cannot distinguish nuclear devices from more benign sources of radiation, such as ceramic tiles and cat litter.

In announcing contracts with three companies last year, after submitting the cost-benefit report to Congress, Chertoff said the machines would sharply improve detection while cutting false alarms that led to traffic delays at border crossings. Congress released funding for the effort after the report.

After the GAO raised questions about the report, Congress mandated that Chertoff personally certify their effectiveness before full deployment.

In a recent interview, Vayl Oxford, director of the nuclear detection office, said there has been a "dramatic decrease" in false alarms in recent screening of cargo containers. He said his office plans to deliver new test results to Chertoff in September.

On Friday, Chertoff asked the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to form the "team of experts" who can provide the independent review of those test results, according to a letter to the agency that the Defense Department released yesterday.

Oxford was deputy director for technology development at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency before moving to the Homeland Security office.

Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was among the lawmakers who received Chertoff's letter. Thompson said he agrees with Chertoff that "such an independent review is needed" and he encouraged "the comments of the review team, especially dissenting opinions, to be provided to Congress."

"Given the likely expense and critical importance of these monitors, which is to cost $1.2 billion, we need independent and impartial validation from the start," Thompson said.

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