By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008
The cost to put a new kind of radiation monitor in place at borders and ports across the country would be far more than the Department of Homeland Security initially told Congress, according to budget documents and interviews with officials.
The department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office said in a report two years ago that the monitors would cost more than $500,000 each to buy and deploy. On the basis of that report, Congress allowed the office to move ahead with a $1.2 billion plan to begin deploying the devices.
Now the nuclear detection office estimates that the total cost for each machine will work out to at least $778,000. The office said it needs almost $68 million "for the procurement and deployment" of 87 machines for one portion of the project, according to budget documents.
A spokesman for the nuclear detection office said the new cost estimates appear higher because they include current expenses to deploy the machines, such as infrastructure construction, calibration of the machines' software and labor. Spokesman Russ Knocke said Capitol Hill was advised from the beginning that there would be additional costs for deployment of the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal monitors, or ASPs.
"The cost per unit of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal system has not increased in price. The cost was previously quoted to Congressional staff and the Government Accountability Office as approximately $377,000," Knocke said in an e-mail. "Congressional officials were also advised that there was a deployment cost associated with each system that includes a one year maintenance contract. The cost of deployment is approximately $325,000 and $400,000 per unit for current generation Radiation Portal Monitors and Advanced Spectroscopic Portal systems, respectively."
Some officials familiar with the program said the cost to buy and deploy the ASPs could climb even higher after the GAO completes an independent assessment this summer.
The cost issues are the latest wrinkle for a program that has been described by the Bush administration as vital to homeland security but which has been delayed repeatedly after GAO auditors and some lawmakers questioned its management and the effectiveness of the machines. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee expects to address some of those issues in a hearing next month on Bush administration efforts to develop a global approach for thwarting potential detonation of nuclear bombs or dirty weapons in the United States.
At the request of homeland security committee chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and other legislators, GAO auditors are continuing to analyze the cost estimates because the auditors question the reliability of the projections. A GAO report on the auditors' analysis of the costs is expected in August.
"Congress and the Department of Homeland Security are trying to make America safer from a nuclear terrorist attack. To do that, we need to make sure that we are building the right kind of nuclear detection defenses and that we are building them the right way," Lieberman said. "Part of that entails making sure we use realistic estimates of what detection technologies are going to cost."
Problems with the nuclear detection program began in August 2006. GAO auditors concluded then that a cost-benefit report, submitted to Congress two months earlier to win approval to begin deploying 1,400 machines, greatly overestimated their effectiveness.
The auditors questioned whether the expense was worth it, in part because the ASPs are significantly more expensive than monitors now in use, and it was not clear that the ASPs perform significantly better.
Those findings spurred lawmakers to require Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to personally certify ASPs' performance before the plan could move forward.
Last year, the auditors raised other questions about the nuclear detection office's ASP testing. They contended that the tests were flawed because manufacturers of the monitors were allowed to conduct "dress rehearsals" and calibrate their machines in anticipation of testing, which auditors said inappropriately enhanced the monitors' performance. That testing was undertaken to generate data for Chertoff's certification decision.
In November, after field testing exposed problems with the ASPs, Chertoff decided that the machines did not operate well enough for his certification and needed more work. Since then, the nuclear detection office has been preparing new tests, with the goal of securing certification from Chertoff in September or October, according to a spokesman for the office.
In the recent documents justifying the nuclear detection office's budget request this year, homeland security officials said the nuclear detection office "projects to have completed Secretarial certification of ASP systems" by the beginning of fiscal 2009.
On Monday, Senate appropriators said they disagreed with the office's time frame. They said the certification probably will take longer, and they cut $22.7 million from the program's requested budget.
"The Committee notes that certification of the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitor systems by the Secretary will likely not occur expeditiously enough for quick obligation of the requested funds and has reduced this account accordingly," the report on homeland security appropriations says.