Homeland Security Dept. says it will drop plans for Bush-era nuclear detectors

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A05

The Department of Homeland Security office responsible for protecting the nation from nuclear and radiological terrorism is largely scrapping plans for new high-tech detectors for screening vehicles and cargo, saying they cost too much and do not work as effectively as security officials once maintained.

In a Feb. 24 letter to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the acting chief of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office said officials will possibly use the machines only for secondary screening, at no more than about a third of the cost originally planned.

The decision makes sense "given the available performance and cost data," Acting DNDO Director William K. Hagan wrote.

The development virtually ensures the collapse of one of the most prominent national security initiatives in the Bush administration, which aggressively touted the machines as a high-tech front-line defense against the importation of nuclear materials.

Bush administration officials in 2006 committed to spending at least $1.2 billion on the development and deployment of Advanced Spectroscopic Portal machines, saying they would dramatically improve screening of vehicles and cargo containers over existing equipment. They estimated that each machine would cost about $377,000.

But officials from the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative agency, turned up evidence that the machines did not work as well as billed. They later discovered that the machines cost far more than DNDO officials had told Congress -- as much as $822,000 each.

GAO officials also have questioned the validity of subsequent testing aimed at securing funding for the program. In a later report, the GAO said the detection office "used biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance" of the machines. Those methods included allowing contractors to adjust machines after preliminary runs, enabling them to appear to perform better.

Yesterday, a GAO official who helped review the program said the "DHS's decision to abandon full-scale deployment of the ASP's is a victory for the U.S taxpayer -- a savings of at least $1.5 billion -- and our national security."

"As recent testing has revealed, the consequences of these machines being deployed nationwide in 2007, as DNDO intended, could have been disastrous," said Gene Aloise, the GAO's director of natural resources and environment.

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