Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

Corruption, Maintenance, and Coordination Problems Challenge U.S. Efforts to Provide Radiation Detection Equipment to Other Countries

GAO-06-311: Published: Mar 14, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 28, 2006.

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According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, between 1993 and 2004, there were 662 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials. Three U.S. agencies, the Departments of Energy (DOE), Defense (DOD), and State (State), have programs that provide radiation detection equipment and training to border security personnel in other countries. GAO examined the (1) progress U.S. programs have made in providing radiation detection equipment to foreign governments, including the current and expected costs of these programs; (2) challenges U.S. programs face in this effort; and (3) steps being taken to coordinate U.S. efforts to combat nuclear smuggling in other countries.

Since fiscal year 1994, DOE, DOD, and State have provided radiation detection equipment to 36 countries as part of the overall U.S. effort to combat nuclear smuggling. Through the end of fiscal year 2005, these agencies had spent about $178 million on this assistance through seven different programs. Primary among these programs is DOE's Second Line of Defense "Core" program, which has installed equipment mostly in Russia since 1998. U.S. efforts to install and effectively operate radiation detection equipment in other countries face a number of challenges including: corruption of some foreign border security officials, technical limitations of some radiation detection equipment, inadequate maintenance of some equipment, and the lack of supporting infrastructure at some border sites. DOE, DOD, and State officials told us they are concerned that corrupt foreign border security personnel could compromise the effectiveness of U.S.-funded radiation detection equipment by either turning off equipment or ignoring alarms. In addition, State and other agencies have installed equipment at some sites that is less effective than equipment installed by DOE. Since 2002, DOE has maintained the equipment but has only upgraded one site. As a result, these border sites are more vulnerable to nuclear smuggling than sites with more sophisticated equipment. Further, while DOE assumed responsibility for maintaining most U.S.-funded equipment, some handheld equipment provided by State and DOD has not been maintained. Lastly, many border sites are located in remote areas that often lack infrastructure essential to operate radiation detection equipment. As the lead interagency coordinator of all U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance overseas, State has taken some steps to coordinate U.S. efforts. However, its ability to carry out its role as lead coordinator is limited by shortcomings in the strategic plan for interagency coordination. Additionally, State has not maintained an interagency master list of all U.S.-funded radiation detection equipment overseas. Without such a list, program managers at DOE, DOD, and State cannot accurately assess if equipment is operational and being used as intended; determine the equipment needs of countries where they plan to provide assistance; or detect if an agency has unknowingly supplied duplicative equipment.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen accountability of U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance programs, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should strengthen the Strategic Plan for Interagency Coordination of U.S. Government Nuclear Detection Assistance Overseas by including in the plan (1) specific performance measures to more effectively track and measure the progress U.S. programs are making toward achievement of interagency goals and objectives and (2) overall cost estimates and projected time frames for completion of U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance efforts to determine the amount of U.S. government resources required to achieve interagency goals and objectives and under what time frames these resources will be required.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2006, we issued a report on U.S. radiation detection assistance programs overseas (GAO-06-311). In this report we recommended, among other things, that the Secretary of State, working with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Strengthen the Strategic Plan for Interagency Coordination of U.S. Government Nuclear Detection Assistance Overseas by including in the plan (1) specific performance measures to more effectively track and measure the progress U.S. programs are making toward achievement of interagency goals and objectives and (2) overall cost estimates and projected time frames for completion of U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance efforts to determine the amount of U.S. government resources required to achieve interagency goals and objectives and under what time frames these resources will be required. State generally agreed with our recommendation and, on March 5, 2007, State officials provided us with a revised Strategic Plan for Interagency Coordination of U.S. Government Nuclear Detection Assistance Overseas (dated December 1, 2006). State and its interagency partners revised the previous plan, based on our recommendation, and included specific performance metrics for U.S. radiation detection assistance efforts overseas in the newly revised plan.

    Recommendation: To strengthen accountability of U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance programs, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should ensure continued maintenance of all radiation detection equipment provided to foreign governments, including all handheld equipment previously provided by State and other agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of State generally agreed with our recommendation and informed GAO that in March 2006 the department had clarified the maintenance guidance for its overseas program advisors who administer the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program. In addition, working with DOD, DOE, and NNSA, State developed a new maintenance plan in November 2006 for radiation detection equipment provided to foreign governments through the EXBS program in response to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To strengthen program management and effectiveness, the Secretary of Energy, working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should upgrade less sophisticated portal monitors previously installed by other U.S. agencies where DOE has determined this to be appropriate as soon as possible and include funding to accomplish this in DOE's planning and budgeting process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE/NNSA has taken steps to upgrade or retire obsolete (less sophisticated) radiation portal monitors installed by other agencies that it had been maintaining. DOE/NNSA has completed upgrades of old monitors in Azerbaijan (GAO-08-771A), Georgia (GAO-08-773A), Ukraine (GAO-08-774A), Cyprus (GAO-08-825A), Slovakia (GAO-08-826A), Lithuania (GAO-08-903A), Estonia (GAO-08-904A), Bulgaria (GAO-09-762A), Turkmenistan (GAO-09-1014A), and Malta (GAO-09-1015A). In addition, DOE/NNSA retired monitors in the Czech Republic, Belarus, Turkey, Poland, and Romania.

    Recommendation: To strengthen program management and effectiveness, the Secretary of Energy, working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should integrate projected spending on specific anticorruption measures into the long-term cost estimates for the Second Line of Defense "Core" program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2006, we issued a report on U.S. radiation detection assistance programs overseas (GAO-06-311). In this report we recommended, among other things, that the Secretary of Energy, working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, integrate projected spending on specific anticorruption measures into the long-term cost estimates for the Second Line of Defense-Core (SLD-Core) program. In February 2007, we met with DOE officials from the SLD-Core program. They provided us with information on the implementation of this recommendation. Specifically, DOE has earmarked outyear funding specifically for offsite national communications systems (about $1 million per country), which was one of the primary anticorruption measures we mentioned in our report. Further, DOE has been coordinating with the State Department to leverage existing State anticorruption training courses. DOE is also exploring the creation of regional or national training centers, which, among other things, would provide anticorruption training.

    Recommendation: To strengthen accountability of U.S. radiation detection equipment assistance programs, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should, to the extent possible, account for all U.S.-funded radiation detection equipment provided to foreign governments, especially handheld equipment, by creating, maintaining, and sharing among all agencies a comprehensive list of such assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006, State, in coordination with DOD, DOE, and DHS, issued a strategic plan giving the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within DHS responsibility for gathering data on the deployment of radiation detection equipment overseas, including portal monitors and handheld devices. In January 2009, we reported that s part of DNDO?s efforts to develop the global strategy for nuclear detection, it is charge with maintaining this database, share information from it at interagency meetings, and provide other relevant government agencies with access to the database (GAO-09-257). According to DNDO, it collected information on radiation detection equipment from DOD, DOE, and State most recently in 2007 and is updating some of the information in 2008 and 2009.

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