Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS has Developed Plans for Its Global Nuclear Detection Architecture, but Challenges Remain in Deploying Equipment

GAO-12-941T Published: Jul 26, 2012. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2012.
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What GAO Found

Over the past 10 years, DHS has made significant progress in deploying radiation detection equipment to scan for nuclear or radiological materials in nearly all trucks and containerized cargo coming into the United Stated through seaports and border crossings. However, challenges remain for the agency in developing a similar scanning capability for railcars entering this country from Canada and Mexico, as well as for international air cargo and international commercial aviation. As portal monitors approach the end of their expected service lives, observations from our past work may help DHS as it considers options to refurbish or replace such monitors. Among other things, we have previously reported that DHS should (1) test new equipment rigorously prior to acquisition and deployment, (2) obtain the full concurrence of the end user to ensure that new equipment meets operational needs, and (3) conduct a cost-benefit analysis to inform any acquisition decisions. In our past work on the GNDA, we recommended that DHS develop an overarching strategic plan to guide the development of the GDNA, as well as a strategic plan for the domestic part of the global nuclear detection strategy. DHS took action on these recommendations and, in December 2010, it issued the interagency GNDA strategic plan. We reported, in July 2011, that the GNDA strategic plan addressed several of the aspects of our prior recommendations but did not (1) identify funding necessary to achieve plan objectives or (2) employ monitoring mechanisms to determine progress and identify needed improvements. In April 2012, DHS issued its GNDA implementation plan, which addresses the remaining aspects of our recommendations by identifying funding dedicated to plan objectives and employing monitoring mechanisms to assess progress in meeting those objectives. However, in both the GNDA strategic plan and the implementation plan, it remains difficult to identify priorities from among various components of the domestic part of the GNDA.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) to develop and deploy a global nuclear detection architecture (GNDA)—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—and to provide an update on the deployment of radiation detection equipment at U.S. borders. Preventing terrorists from using nuclear or radiological material to carry out an attack in the United States is a top national priority. DNDO is charged with, among other things, enhancing and coordinating the nuclear detection efforts of federal, state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector to ensure a managed, coordinated response. Among other things, DNDO is required to coordinate with other federal agencies to develop an enhanced GNDA. It is also responsible for developing, acquiring, and deploying radiation detection equipment to support the efforts of DHS and other federal agencies. While federal efforts to combat nuclear smuggling have largely focused on established ports of entry, such as seaports and land border crossings, DNDO has also been examining nuclear detection strategies along other potential pathways in the architecture, 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.

Even before DNDO’s inception in 2005, we were highlighting the need for a more comprehensive strategy for nuclear detection. In 2002, we reported on the need for a comprehensive plan for installing radiation detection equipment, such as radiation portal monitors, at all U.S. border crossings and ports of entry. In July 2008, we testified that DNDO had not developed an overarching strategic plan to guide the development of a more comprehensive GNDA, and we recommended that DHS coordinate with the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State to develop one. DHS agreed with our recommendation. In January 2009, we recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security develop a strategic plan for the domestic part of the global nuclear detection strategy to help ensure the success of initiatives aimed at closing vulnerabilities in the United States. We stated that this plan should focus on, among other things, establishing time frames and costs for the areas DNDO had identified—land border areas between ports of entry, aviation, and small maritime craft. DHS did not comment on this recommendation but noted that it aligned with DNDO’s past, present, and future actions. The status of these recommendations is discussed later in this testimony.

DHS has made meaningful progress in deploying radiation detection equipment at U.S. border crossings and seaports; however, as deployed portal monitors begin to reach the end of their expected service lives, DHS will soon need to make decisions about whether to refurbish or replace them. DHS has also made progress in developing key planning documents to guide the GNDA. This testimony discusses: (1) DHS’s efforts to complete the deployment of radiation detection equipment to scan all cargo and conveyances entering the United States at ports of entry, (2) observations from our past work that may help DHS as it considers options for deploying new technologies to refurbish or replace existing portal monitors when they reach the end of their expected service lives, and (3) our assessment of the extent to which DHS has addressed our prior recommendations.

This testimony is primarily based on our prior work on federal efforts to detect and prevent the smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials, issued from October 2002 through July 2011. We have updated our prior work in this testimony to reflect DHS’s continuing efforts to deploy radiation detection equipment.

For more information, contact Diana C. Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or or Gene Aloise at (202) 512-3841 or

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