Nuclear smugglingU.S. cuts budget for nuclear monitoring at foreign ports

Published 19 December 2012

In 2003 the United States decided to install radiation detection equipment in 100 large ports around the world, and train local personnel in using the equipment, so that ship containers could be scanned for nuclear material before the ship left for the United States; so far, equipment has been deployed in forty-two ports; after GAO criticism of the quality of the scanning equipment and of lack of coordination between two similar container scanning programs, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s 2013 budget will be cut by 85 percent, and further installations will be canceled

The administration plans on cutting back funds for installing nuclear and radiation detection equipment in overseas megaports. The plan was for the detection devices to scan shipping containers headed to the United States.

WNDreports that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) planned on installing radiation and nuclear detection equipment at 100  large  ports in thirty-one  countries, but after spending around $850 million, only forty-two of the scanners were installed.

The NNSA, facing an 85 percent reduction in its budget in 2013, has since cancelled planned deployments of equipment in five countries.

The NNSA scanning program began in 2003, aiming to detect and capture nuclear and other radiological materials being smuggled through foreign seaports. The program trains foreign personnel to use the equipment in order to scan the containers before they are sent off to the United States.

 With the budget cuts-imposed cancellation of further deployments, the agency will now focus on sustaining existing facilities instead of building new ones.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the NNSA has not been very effective in accomplishing this nuclear scanning mission.

“Without a long-term plan for ensuring countries’ ability to continue megaports operations, NNSA cannot be assured that its $850 million investment will be sustained,” the GAO said in the report. “Moreover, the initiative’s performance measures do not provide sufficient information for decision-making because they do not evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the initiative.”

A GAO investigation also concluded that the NNSA’s initiative, and a separate program by DHS, called the Container Security Initiative, to  search shipping containers on their way to the United States for weapons of mass destruction, were not “sufficiently coordinating.”

In addition to the lack of coordination between the two programs, the equipment being used was not suitable for the job. The  GAO investigators found that DHS personnel  were using personal radiation detectors intended for personal safety, but which were inadequate for scanning shipping containers. The NNSA had the necessary equipment and could have given DHS access to it.

Last year GAO found deficiencies in DHS’ radiation detection equipment, and said that “challenges remain for the agency in developing a similar scanning capability for railcars entering this country from Canada and Mexico, as well as for international air cargo and international commercial aviation.”