Radiation Detector Plan Falls Short, Audit Shows
Concerns About Cost and Effectiveness Could Curtail Program

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

An ambitious Bush administration program to use new technology to stop radioactive materials from being smuggled into the country has fallen far short of its aims and will likely be sharply curtailed, according to an audit report obtained by The Washington Post.

The project, involving three contractors, has been embroiled in allegations that the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office misled Congress about the testing, cost and effectiveness of the machines. Budget documents this year showed the cost to put the monitors at borders and ports would be far higher than the detection office originally estimated.

An audit report by the federal Government Accountability Office shows that officials in the detection office plan to deploy the machines, known as advanced spectroscopic portal monitors or ASPs, on a far more limited basis than originally planned. The new plan will focus on using the machines to monitor cargo containers, the report said. The detection office is not sure what method it will use to screen "rail cars, privately owned vehicles, airport cargo and cargo at seaport terminals" in the near future, the report said.

The report said "senior DNDO officials acknowledge a deployment program that is dramatically different in scope than the one presented to and approved by Congress. Program officials now state the program includes only the standard cargo ASP -- a significant reduction in planned ASP equipment."

The report is the latest blow to one of the Bush administration's most prominent homeland security initiatives. In announcing the $1.2 billion program two years ago, Department of Homeland Security officials said the costly monitors were vital to national security, would dramatically improve the detection of nuclear materials and reduce false alarms experienced by current equipment.

The program has been delayed repeatedly after investigators turned up evidence that the detection office provided misleading cost estimates and inflated detection capabilities in a cost-benefit report to Congress in 2006. Congress later required Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to certify the effectiveness of the machines before they could be widely deployed.

Last fall, Chertoff put off deployment after the GAO alleged that detection officials fudged testing of the machines and after customs officials complained that they did not work well in field tests.

The government continues to rely on existing, less expensive equipment. The current machines are effective at detecting the presence of radiation but often cannot distinguish benign sources, such as cat litter, from materials that can be used in weapons.

The GAO audit is part of an ongoing review of the detection office's cost estimates. The review found that the cost to install and operate the machines in U.S. ports of entry -- based on the detection office's 2006 plan -- could be as high as $3.8 billion over a decade, about 81 percent higher than detection office estimates. The likely cost would be about $3.1 billion, the report said, about 48 percent higher than the office's estimates. The GAO concluded the detection office estimates were unreliable in part because they omitted major costs.

The review found that contracts for the development of the machines "have already experienced unfavorable cost and schedule variances" since the contracts to three firms were awarded in July 2006. Contractors include Raytheon, Thermo Eberline and Canberra.

One contract is 25 percent over budget and 23 percent behind schedule, the report said, without providing details about the contractor. "These unfavorable variances are not likely to improve, but quite likely will worsen, over the course of the ASP contracts," the report said.

Auditors said they struggled to develop those figures because the detection office has declined to provide sufficient details about the program. The detection office also "instructed its ASP contractors to refuse GAO requests for interviews and data," the report said.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman declined to discuss the report, saying the department had not had an opportunity to formally respond to it.

"We will not proceed to full-rate production on advanced spectroscopic portal systems until the secretary certifies that they have a significant increase in operational effectiveness over current systems," spokeswoman Laura C. Keehner said. "The department has been following a prudent path leading to certification."

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans a hearing about the report and related matters Sept. 25. Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose staff has been conducting a parallel investigation, said the program was "a mission where failure is not an option."

"GAO has done both the Congress and the department a great service, by doing a realistic, tough-minded evaluation of the costs of this important program," Lieberman said.

A GAO official involved in the review declined to comment.

"In our view, the frequent changes in deployment plans, and the lack of available cost documentation, raises concerns about the overall management of the radiation portal monitor project, and whether it is guided by a sound and stable strategy," the report said.

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