Combating Nuclear Smuggling:

DHS has Developed a Strategic Plan for its Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, but Gaps Remain

GAO-11-869T: Published: Jul 26, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2011.

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Diana C. Maurer
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This testimony discusses our past work examining the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) progress and efforts in planning, developing, and deploying its global nuclear detection architecture (GNDA). The overall mission of the GNDA is to use an integrated system of radiation detection equipment and interdiction activities to combat nuclear smuggling in foreign countries, at the U.S. border, and inside the United States. Terrorists smuggling nuclear or radiological material into the United States could use these materials to make an improvised nuclear device or a radiological dispersal device (also called a "dirty bomb"). The detonation of a nuclear device in an urban setting could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and devastate buildings and physical infrastructure for miles. While not as damaging, a radiological dispersal device could nonetheless cause hundreds of millions of dollars in socioeconomic costs as a large part of a city would have to be evacuated--and possibly remain inaccessible--until an extensive radiological decontamination effort was completed. Accordingly, the GNDA remains our country's principal strategy in protecting the homeland from the consequences of nuclear terrorism. The GNDA is a multi-departmental effort coordinated by DHS's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). DNDO is also responsible for developing, acquiring, and deploying radiation detection equipment to support the efforts of DHS and other federal agencies. Federal efforts to combat nuclear smuggling have largely focused on established ports of entry, such as seaports and land border crossings. However, DNDO has also been examining nuclear detection strategies along other potential pathways and has identified several gaps in the GNDA, including (1) land border areas between ports of entry into the United States; (2) international general aviation; and (3) small maritime craft, such as recreational boats and commercial fishing vessels. Developing strategies, technologies, and resources to address these gaps remains one of the key challenges in deploying the GNDA. Some progress has been made, but DHS and other federal agencies have yet to fully address gaps in the global nuclear detection architecture. Specifically, this testimony discusses DHS's efforts to (1) address our prior recommendations to develop a strategic plan for the GNDA, including developing strategies to prevent smuggling of nuclear or radiological materials via the critical gaps DNDO identified, (2) complete the deployment of radiation detection equipment to scan all cargo and conveyances entering the United States at ports of entry, and (3) develop new technologies to detect nuclear or radioactive materials. This testimony is based on our prior work on U.S. government efforts to detect and prevent the smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials issued from October 2002 through September 2010. We updated this information in July 2011 to reflect DHS's efforts to address our prior recommendations by meeting with DNDO officials and reviewing recent DNDO documents, such as the 2010 GNDA Strategic Plan and the 2011 GNDA Joint Annual Interagency Review.

In summary, since December 2010, DNDO has issued both a strategic plan to guide the development of the GNDA and an annual report on the current status of the GNDA. The new strategic plan addressed some key components of what we previously recommended be included in a strategic plan, such as identifying the roles and responsibilities for meeting strategic objectives. However, neither the plan nor the annual report identifies funding needed to achieve the strategic plan's objectives or employs monitoring mechanisms to determine programmatic progress and identify needed improvements. DHS officials informed us that they will address these missing elements in an implementation plan, which they plan to issue before the end of this year. As we reported in September 2010, DHS has made progress in deploying both radiation detection equipment and developing procedures to scan cargo entering the United States through land and sea ports of entry for nuclear and radiological materials. For example, according to DHS officials, the department scans nearly 100 percent of the cargo and conveyances entering the United States through land borders and major seaports. However, as we reported in July 2011, DHS has experienced challenges in developing new technologies to detect nuclear and radiological materials, such as developing and meeting key performance requirements. DHS has plans to enhance its development and acquisition of new technologies, although it is still too early to assess their impact on addressing the challenges we identified in our past work.

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