GAO unimpressed with new radiation detectors

Published 27 June 2009

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended further testing of next-generation radiation detectors; at more than $800,000 apiece, the new devices cost nearly 300 percent more than the machines in operation

The U.S. Congress’s watchdog agency has recommended further testing of next-generation radiation detectors designed to increase security against radioactive threats at U.S. ports of entry after tests produced lackluster results.

UPI reports that DHS had hoped to replace its existing detectors with the new advanced spectroscopic portal radiation detection monitors. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, was not impressed with the advantages of the new high-tech detectors given their price tag or the rigor of the tests themselves.

The existing polyvinyl toluene portal detectors detect radiation in a vehicle passing through the machine but can not pinpoint its location, meaning that the vehicle has to be thoroughly physically inspected. Furthermore, numerous objects, like pottery dishes, give off radiation prompting what are called “innocent alarms.”

Tests showed that the new advanced spectroscopic portal (ASP) detectors are slightly more sensitive than existing devices to radioactive threats from lightly concealed weapons, but have no advantage if weapons are highly concealed. They are, however, five times less likely to produce false alarms and would greatly reduce time and manpower wastage.

The major downside is that at more than $800,000 apiece, the ASPs cost nearly 300 percent more than the machines in operation. “At a current cost of $308,000 each for the current system to $822,000 for each new machine is not a small matter. The taxpayer must be assured that an extra one half million dollars per machine will benefit our national security and the public’s safety,” said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Also, investigators criticized the standard of DHS testing, saying that the new machines had been compared against the agency’s more dated PVT devices, rather than against the latest upgraded PVT devices. DHS disagreed with that conclusion.

UPI says that a former CIA counter-terror expert cautioned against putting too much reliance in machines, saying human intelligence is needed to locate weapons in the first place and that the technical aspect is useful only once a site had been located. “Technical would be valuable once you had a location of or in exploitation of a site, but there is no real way technical means would give you the fix on the weapon in the first place,” said Charles Faddis, a former WMD counter-terrorism department chief at the Agency’s National Counterterrorism Center.

Other counter-terror experts say loopholes in entry procedures of cargo into the United States need to be closed. A worrisome amount of mis-declared and mislabeled cargo is a potential loophole that could be exploited by terrorist organizations, they say. Added to that are sometimes relaxed attitudes toward “trusted shippers” — like Pakistani-owned firms — that could be compromised at any time in the future by terrorists trying to smuggle WMDs into the United States.