Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Recent Testing Raises Issues About the Potential Effectiveness of Advanced Radiation Detection Portal Monitors Page: 3 of 13
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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I am pleased to be here today to discuss GAO's work on the Department of
Homeland Security's (DHS) testing of advanced spectroscopic portal
(ASP) radiation detection monitors. One mission of U.S. Customs and
Border Protection (CBP), an agency within DHS, includes screening cargo
and vehicles coming into this country for smuggled nuclear or radiological
material that could be used in an improvised nuclear device or radiological
dispersal device (a "dirty bomb"). To screen cargo at ports of entry, CBP
conducts primary inspections with radiation detection equipment called
portal monitors-large stationary detectors through which cargo
containers and vehicles pass as they enter the United States. When
radiation is detected, CBP conducts secondary inspections using a second
portal monitor to confirm the original alarm and a handheld radioactive
isotope identification device to identify the radiation's source and
determine whether it constitutes a threat.
The polyvinyl toluene (PVT) portal monitors CBP currently uses for this
screening can detect radiation but cannot identify the type of material
causing an alarm. As a result, the monitors' radiation alarms can be set off
even by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, or granite tile because these
materials contain small amounts of benign, naturally occurring radioactive
material. To address the limitations of current-generation portal monitors,
DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in 2005 began to
develop and test ASPs, which are designed to both detect radiation and
identify the source.' DNDO hopes to use the new portal monitors to
replace at least some PVTs currently used for primary screening, as well as
PVTs and handheld identification devices currently used for secondary
Since 2006, we have been reporting on issues associated with the cost and
performance of the ASPs and the lack of rigor in testing this equipment.
For example, we found that tests DNDO conducted in early 2007 used
biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance of ASPs and
did not use critical CBP operating procedures that are fundamental to the
'DNDO was established within DHS in 2005; its mission includes developing, testing,
acquiring, and supporting the deployment of radiation detection equipment at U.S. ports of
entry. CBP began deploying portal monitors in 2002, prior to DNDO's creation, under the
radiation portal monitor project.
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United States. Government Accountability Office. Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Recent Testing Raises Issues About the Potential Effectiveness of Advanced Radiation Detection Portal Monitors, text, November 17, 2009; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc290925/m1/3/: accessed November 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.