Debate Over Next-Generation Radiation Portals Continues
By Stew Magnuson and Matt Rusling
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office were still trading barbs over the effectiveness of the next generation of radiation portals to be deployed at ports.
The advanced spectroscopic portals (ASPs) are intended to check trucks, trains or shipping containers arriving by sea for nuclear material. Since earlier versions of the technology were prone to false alarms — or worse — a failure to detect radioactive material that could be used in a weapon, Congress demanded that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security personally certify that the devices are better than what is currently being used.
After a withering GAO report, entitled, “DHS’ Phase 3 Test Report on Advanced Portal Monitors Does Not Fully Disclose the Limitations of the Test Results,” was released at the end of October, it appears doubtful that Secretary Michael Chertoff will be the one to approve the portals.
“The report does not accurately depict the results from the test and could potentially be misleading,” stated the report, which was dated Sept. 30, but released one month later.
GAO criticized the number of tests runs the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office carried out on the ASPs, and said they weren’t sufficient to make a firm conclusion on their effectiveness. For example, one test result stated that a monitor was effective in identifying nuclear material 50 percent of the time. But because of the limited number of tests, that number could be anywhere from 15 percent to 85 percent of the time.
DHS, in a rebuttal to the report, said it “strongly disagreed” with GAO.
The tests were designed to improve the ASPs’ algorithms and to identify areas for further development.
“The test was not intended to be a precise indicator of ASP performance, nor does the test report ever claim to draw such conclusions,” responded Jerald E. Levine, director of DHS’ GAO liaison office.