Radiation Detection Portal Program Comes to an End

By Stew Magnuson
One of the Department of Homeland Security’s most troubled technology development programs came to an end in July, when a senior official announced that the Advanced Spectrographic Portals, which were designed to ferret out nuclear material at ports, was terminated.

“We will not seek certification or large scale deployment of ASP,” Domestic Nuclear Detection Office Director Warren Stern told the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and security technologies subcommittee.

The ASP program began in 2004 when the first generation of nuclear detection portals had extremely high false alarm rates. Bananas, kitty litter, bathroom tiles and other benign materials that contained harmless traces of radiation routinely set them off.

Congress has mandated that all shipping containers entering U.S. ports be scanned by 2012.
ASP technology was supposed to replace the old portals, but from the beginning, the prototypes were not functioning as required. The Government Accountability Office released a series of scathing reports stating that the department’s testing procedures were inadequate. The National Academies also weighed in and agreed that the program was not meeting testing standards.

The DNDO, an office created to focus on the program, announced last year that the ASP portals would only be used for secondary screening when the first generation portals detected radiation.

The cost to deploy and maintain the portals overseas and domestically was also being questioned. Who would pay for such a large undertaking and what the ultimate cost would be was never settled. In addition, Helium-3, a crucial isotope needed to operate the sensors, is in such short supply, that a wide-scale deployment of the machines may not have been possible.

Pundits also said the “nuke in a container” scenario was implausible considering how difficult it would be for a terrorist organization to build or acquire a bomb.

Stern said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ended the program “as originally conceived.” The department will try to move forward with handheld detectors, and the first generation of portals, although he testified that they would never be as efficient as the advanced system. The department has acquired 13 ASP portals, which it will continue to use to collect data for a possible future program, said Stern, suggesting that the idea was not entirely dead.

David C. Maurer, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues, confirmed that the program was indeed a poster child for the department’s technology development enterprise.

“DNDO’s problems … are examples of broader challenges DHS faces in developing and acquiring new technologies to meet homeland security needs,” he testified.

Topics: Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security

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