Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

DNDO Has Not Yet Collected Most of the National Laboratories' Test Results on Radiation Portal Monitors in Support of DNDO's Testing and Development Program

GAO-07-347R: Published: Mar 9, 2007. Publicly Released: Apr 9, 2007.

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Preventing a nuclear weapon or radiological dispersal device (a "dirty bomb") from being smuggled into the United States is a key national security priority. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through its Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), has lead responsibility for conducting the research, development, testing, and evaluation of radiation detection equipment that can be used to detect smuggled nuclear or radiological materials. Much of DNDO's work on radiation detection equipment to date has focused on the development and use of radiation detection portal monitors, which are larger-scale equipment that can screen vehicles, people, and cargo entering the United States. Current portal monitors, made of polyvinyl toluene (plastic) and known as "PVTs," detect the presence of radiation but cannot distinguish between benign, naturally occurring radiological materials (NORM) such as ceramic tile, and dangerous materials such as highly enriched uranium (HEU). DNDO hopes that the next generation of portal monitors, known as "Advanced Spectroscopic Portals" (ASP), will be able to detect and more specifically identify radiological and nuclear materials within a shipping container. Given DNDO's goal of replacing PVT portal monitors with much more expensive ASPs, it is important for DNDO to fully understand the relative advantages and disadvantages of PVTs and ASPs before making the multibillion dollar investment that would be necessary to implement its current plan. Further, in light of the important role that DNDO foresees for state and local governments in radiation detection, it is also important that DNDO communicate this understanding to its state and local partners. Our October 2006 report concluded that DNDO's assessment of ASPs did not fully support DNDO's decision to purchase and deploy them. This report examines whether DNDO has fully collected and maintained all existing tests on PVTs in order to fully assess their advantages and limitations. To that end, we agreed with your offices to examine the extent to which DNDO has (1) compiled previous test results from the national laboratories on commercially available portal monitors, and (2) provided state and local authorities with information on the technical performance characteristics and operation of radiation detection equipment.

DNDO has not yet collected a comprehensive inventory of testing information on commercially available PVT portal monitors. Such information--if collected and used--could improve DNDO's understanding of how well portal monitors detect different radiological and nuclear materials under varying conditions. In turn, this understanding would assist DNDO's future testing, development, deployment, and purchases of portal monitors. In response to our request for information, DNDO provided us with test reports from only 11 of at least 54 tests on commercially available portal monitors completed by DOE's national laboratories since September 11, 2001. However, when we later presented DNDO with our initial findings, DNDO's Director of Assessments told us that she personally has access to the vast majority of test reports completed by the national laboratories. She added that DNDO is in the process of planning how to develop a database with this type of information so that the information will be more widely available to others in DNDO. Radiation detection experts with the national laboratories and industry told us that, in their view, DNDO should collect and maintain all the national laboratory test reports on commercially available portal monitors because these reports provide a comprehensive inventory of how well portal monitors detect a wide variety of radiological and nuclear materials and how environmental conditions and other factors may affect performance. DNDO is improving its efforts to provide technical and operational information about radiation portal monitors to state and local authorities. For example, DNDO recently helped to establish a Web site that, among other things, includes information for state and local officials on radiation detection equipment products and performance requirements. However, some state representatives with whom we spoke, particularly those from states with less experience conducting radiation detection programs, would like to see DNDO provide more prescriptive advice on what types of radiation detection equipment to deploy and how to use it.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that DNDO's Report Analysis and Archive System (RAAS) database, in addition to containing all of the reports on radiation detection conducted by U.S. national laboratories, also contained reports assessing the effectiveness of other kinds of radiation detection equipment, such as hand-held Radioactive Isotope Identification Devices. In fact, according to DNDO officials and the RAAS project manager at Argonne National Laboratory, all unclassified radiation detection test data from the national laboratories is included in RAAS, as well as reports controlled at the For Official Use Only (FOUO) and Unclassified Nuclear Information (UCNI) levels; classified reports are maintained in another database.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the nation maintains a comprehensive source of information on the characteristics and performance of PVT portal monitors and to further the ability of state and local governments to make informed judgments about their radiation detection needs and future equipment purchases, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the director, DNDO, should collect and maintain reports concerning all of the testing performed by the U.S. national laboratories.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that DNDO established the Report Analysis and Archive System (RAAS) to collect, maintain, review, and assess test data for radiation portal monitors and other radiation detection equipment. We also found that a user can search RAAS for information about portal monitors (as well as other kinds of radiation detection equipment) and quickly assemble a list of reports that contain information about how such portal monitors perform in the laboratory and in the field, how well they identify particular radioisotopes - medical, industrial, special nuclear materials - and how effectively they perform in areas with different kinds of and levels of background radiation.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the nation maintains a comprehensive source of information on the characteristics and performance of PVT portal monitors and to further the ability of state and local governments to make informed judgments about their radiation detection needs and future equipment purchases, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the director, DNDO, should review the test reports in order to develop and information database on how PVT's perform in both laboratory and field tests on a variety of indicators such as their ability to detect specific radiological and nuclear materials or how they are affected by different levels of background environmental radiation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DNDO officials, the office began sharing the test results of radiation detection equipment in 2006 via the Responder Knowledge Base and through the regular meetings of the State and Local Stakeholders Working Group. However, it was not until 2010, after the Report Analysis and Archive System (RAAS) was launched, that DNDO established the capacity to share comprehensive information on test results for this equipment. RAAS provides information about how portal monitors and other radiation detection equipment performs in the laboratory and in the field, how well they identify particular radioisotopes - medical, industrial, special nuclear materials - and how effectively they perform in areas with different kinds of and levels of background radiation.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the nation maintains a comprehensive source of information on the characteristics and performance of PVT portal monitors and to further the ability of state and local governments to make informed judgments about their radiation detection needs and future equipment purchases, the Secretary of Homeland Security, working with the director, DNDO, should confer with state and local officials on what information they would find useful and how that information could be best presented to them.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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