GAO hashly criticizes the next generation of radiation portal monitors

Published 18 October 2006

Scheduled for deployment next year, the monitors failed to correctlty identify highly enriched uranium, whether masked or bare; GAO finds the cost of $377,000 per unit entirely unjustified and asks DHS officials to go back to the drawing board; Thermo Electron, Raytheon, and Canberra Industries to received $1.2 billion for new machines

Things were looking up last week when President Bush signed the SAFE Port bill requiring the installation of radiation detectors at the nation’s twenty-two largest ports. The project was already in motion, DHS having awarded the $1.2 billion in funding in second-generation radiation portal monitors (RPM) to Thermo Electron, Raytheon, and Canberra Industries in July, and security officials and retailers all applauded the decision to follow through on the endeavor. It was left to the beancounters at the General Accounting Office (GAO) to throw water on the whole thing with a report this week that harshly criticizes the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s cost-benefit analysis of the new machines. As explained by Christian Hernter, “The report argues that this analysis does not provide a sound basis for investment in next-generation RPMs, which cost $377,000 per unit vs. $55,000 per unit for current RPMs, and according to the GAO, provide a negligible additional benefit in terms of their capabilities.”

Among these “negligible additional benefits” were the inability of the the new RPMs — all of which are known as advanced spectroscopic portal monitors (ASP) that, in addition to detecting nuclear or radiological material, supposedly can also identify the type of material — to correctly identify masked highly enriched uranium (HEU), HEU that has been strategically placed near or within radiological but benign substances such as kitty litter and ceramic tile. Indeed, the ASPs could identify unmasked HEU only about 80 percent of the time (95 percent is the standard), and when masked the percentage fell to less than fifty. Nevertheless, GAO noted, “Instead of relying on performance data, DNDO relied on potential future performance to justify the purchase of ASPs.”

-read more in this GAO report