Preventing Nuclear Smuggling:

DOE Has Made Limited Progress in Installing Radiation Detection Equipment at Highest Priority Foreign Seaports

GAO-05-375: Published: Mar 31, 2005. Publicly Released: May 2, 2005.

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Since September 11, 2001, concern has increased that terrorists could smuggle nuclear weapons or materials into this country in the approximately 7 million containers that arrive annually at U.S. seaports. Nuclear materials can be smuggled across borders by being placed inside containers aboard cargo ships. In response to this concern, since 2003, the Department of Energy (DOE) has deployed radiation detection equipment to key foreign seaports through its Megaports Initiative (Initiative). GAO examined the (1) progress DOE has made in implementing the Initiative, (2) current and expected costs of the Initiative, and (3) challenges DOE faces in installing radiation detection equipment at foreign ports.

DOE's Megaports Initiative has had limited success in initiating work at seaports identified as high priority by DOE's Maritime Prioritization Model, which ranks ports in terms of their relative attractiveness to potential nuclear smugglers. Gaining the cooperation of foreign governments has been difficult in part because some countries have concerns that screening large volumes of containers will create delays that could inhibit the flow of commerce at their ports. DOE has completed work at 2 ports and signed agreements to initiate work at 5 other ports. Additionally, DOE is negotiating agreements with the governments of 18 additional countries and DOE officials told us they are close to signing agreements with 5 of these countries. However, DOE does not have a comprehensive long-term plan to guide the Initiative's efforts. Developing such a plan would lead DOE to, among other things, determine criteria for deciding how many and which lower priority ports to complete if it continues to have difficulties working at higher volume and higher threat ports of interest. Through the end of fiscal year 2004, DOE had spent about $43 million on Megaports Initiative activities. Of this amount, about $14 million was spent on completing installations at 2 ports. Although DOE currently plans to install equipment at a total of 20 ports by 2010, at an estimated cost of $337 million, this cost projection is uncertain for several reasons. For example, the projection is based in part on DOE's $15 million estimate for the average cost per port, which may not be accurate because it was based primarily on DOE's work at Russian land borders, airports, and seaports. Additionally, DOE is currently assessing whether the Initiative's scope should increase beyond 20 ports; if this occurs, total costs and time frames will also increase. DOE faces several operational and technical challenges in installing radiation detection equipment at foreign ports. For example, DOE is currently devising ways to overcome technical challenges posed by the physical layouts and cargo stacking configurations at some ports. Additionally, environmental conditions, such high winds and sea spray, can affect radiation detection equipment's performance and sustainability.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE informed GAO in a letter dated July 7, 2005, that it concurred with this recommendation and was taking steps to develop a single comprehensive long-term plan for the Megaports Initiative. DOE completed its comprehensive program plan for the Megaports Initiative in March 2006. DOE provided GAO with a copy of this plan for our review.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should develop a comprehensive long-term plan to guide the future efforts of the Initiative that includes, at a minimum, (1) performance measures that are consistent with DOE's desire to install radiation detection equipment at the highest priority foreign seaports, (2) strategies DOE will employ to determine how many and which lower priority ports it will include in the Initiative if it continues to have difficulty installing equipment at the highest priority ports as identified by its model, (3) projections of the anticipated funds required to meet the Initiative's objectives, and (4) specific time frames for effectively spending program funds.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE informed GAO in a letter dated July 7, 2005, that it concurred with this recommendation and will conduct a comprehensive cost analysis to asses the accuracy of the per port estimate for the Megaports Initiative at the end of Fiscal Year 2005. In February 2007, DOE officials provided GAO with information on their implementation of this recommendation. Specifically, DOE has conducted an evaluation of the previous per-port estimate based on historical cost data from relevant operational ports and from multiple ports of various sizes and stages of system implementation. In an effort to more effectively estimate the costs associated with system implementation, DOE has categorized ports by the number of radiation portal monitors deployed. DOE provided the following information about the estimated per port cost estimate by port size: Pilot 2-4 radiation portal monitors (RPMs) $2.6M; Small 10 RPMs $7.5M; Medium 18-20 RPMs $14.3M; Large 35-40 $30.4M. According to DOE, future program lifecycle planning and budget forecasting will utilize the revised basis of estimate for each category of port. As a best practice, DOE wrote that it will continue to evaluate the implementation model used in an effort to gain efficiencies leading to future cost reductions.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should evaluate the accuracy of the current per port cost estimate of $15 million, make any necessary adjustments to the Initiative's long-term cost projection, and inform Congress of any changes to the long-term cost projection for the Initiative.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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