DHS solicits proposals for $1 billion nuclear material screening project

Published 27 February 2006

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), DHS nuclear detection arm, has circulated a formal solicitation for a contract to build a Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS), a nuclear materials screening system. The project could take up to seven years to complete and may well exceed $1.3 billion. The program will tackle one of the thorniest homeland security issues — developing technologies to screen the millions of cargo containers entering the United States every year. The program will start with $109 million in fiscal 2007, with the goal of having prototype systems out in the middle of fiscal 2008. Some U.S. entry points already deploy passive sensors, but these sensors are more effective in detecting radioactive materials such as cesium and strontium which may be used for dirty bombs; these passive sensors are not good for finding material which could be made into a nuclear weapon. The reason: Weapons-grade materials such as highly enriched uranium and some types of plutonium emit far less radiation and are thus more difficult to detect.

Moreover, any radioactive material being smuggled into the country would probably be encased in a dense substance such as lead, making detection even more difficult. DNDO is thus looking for a technology which can detect dense material — including weapons-grade nuclear material — within cargo containers. “The implemented technology will be able to distinguish between low density materials such as aluminum and steel, and higher density materials such as lead, uranium or plutonium,” the work document says.

Several large defense contractors are gearing up for the nuclear detection marketplace, including SAIC, Raytheon, and SRS Technologies. Frost & Sullivan’s Matthew Farr, senior homeland security analyst, told CQ that unlike the project to defend commercial airlines from shoulder-mounted missiles — a project appearing to be on the wane, with the administration asking only for $5 million for it in FY 2007, compared with $108 in FY 2006 — the request for screening technology is likely to stir serious interest. The threat of nuclear terrorism is looming, so “if you can build [effective screening technology], the government will buy it,” Farr said. “The large contractors can really sink their teeth into this project because they know it’s going to happen.”

-read more in Benton Ives-Halperin’s CQ report (sub. req.)