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Combating Nuclear Smuggling: NNSA's Detection and Deterrence Program Is Addressing Challenges but Should Improve Its Program Plan [Reissued on June 20, 2016]

GAO-16-460 Published: Jun 17, 2016. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2016.
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What GAO Found

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD) program has developed a program plan that includes four 5-year goals to guide its efforts; however, NSDD cannot measure its progress toward completing key activities and achieving these goals because its program plan does not fully incorporate leading practices for program management. Leading practices include having measurable outcome-oriented goals, goals for all key activities, performance measures that align with these goals, and details for how and when key activities will be completed and goals achieved. However, NSDD's goals are not all measurable, some describe actions rather than outcomes, and they do not fully address all of the program's key activities. In addition, its performance measures are not aligned with these goals, and its program plan does not detail how it will complete key program activities or achieve its goals. Absent a program plan incorporating these leading practices, NSDD may not be able to determine when it has accomplished its mission and risks continuing to deploy equipment past the point of diminishing returns.

In each of the three selected partner countries GAO visited—Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, and Georgia—law enforcement officers and government officials attributed multiple cases of successful detection, deterrence, and interdiction of smuggled nuclear and radiological materials to the use of NSDD-provided radiation detection equipment. For example, one of these countries has been involved with 21 such smuggling cases over the past 10 years, with over 50 convictions made as a result. Moreover, some cases in these countries have involved the detection and interdiction of highly enriched uranium, which can be used to develop a nuclear weapon.

NSDD faces an unusual set of challenges in performing its work, many largely outside of its control. Nonetheless, the program is taking actions to mitigate the effects of these challenges. For example, NSDD officials cited changing conditions in partner countries as a key challenge. In particular, NSDD officials noted that the conflict between the Ukrainian government and separatist groups that began in 2014 has led to the destruction of 29 radiation portal monitors, and NSDD officials do not know whether the program will be able to fix or replace them and, if so, when. To mitigate this challenge, NSDD plans to deploy additional radiation detection equipment at key locations outside the conflict area.

Damage to a Site in Ukraine with Installed Radiation Portal Monitors

Damage to a Site in Ukraine with Installed Radiation Portal Monitors

Why GAO Did This Study

International nuclear and radiological smuggling threatens national security. According to the Department of Homeland Security, detecting and interdicting these materials as far away from the United States as possible increases the probability of successfully deterring nuclear and radiological smuggling into the United States. To help interdict these materials, NNSA's NSDD program has partnered with 59 countries to provide radiation detection equipment and support. GAO was asked to review key aspects of the NSDD program.

This report examines (1) NSDD's plans for completing key activities and achieving its goals, (2) selected partner countries' use of NSDD-provided equipment to detect or interdict nuclear or radiological material, and (3) NSDD's challenges. GAO reviewed NSDD documents, interviewed officials, and visited a nonprobability sample of 19 sites, including land border crossings, airports, and seaports in three countries—Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, and Georgia—selected on the basis of the number and types of sites, their potential as nuclear smuggling routes, and program expenditures, among other factors.

Reissued on June 20, 2016


GAO recommends that NNSA direct NSDD to improve its program plan by more clearly articulating when and how it will complete key activities and achieve its goals. NNSA agreed with this recommendation and is taking action to address it.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration The Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should direct NSDD to develop a more detailed program plan that clearly articulates when and how it will achieve its goals, including completing key activities such as the deployment of radiation detection equipment to partner countries and having these countries fully fund the sustainment and maintenance of this equipment. The plan could include measurable goals for all of NSDD's key activities and performance measures that align with these goals, criteria and guidance for identifying partner countries that may require additional financial assistance, determining when changing conditions may warrant adjusting program activities, or identifying any program activities that could help maintain sustainability.
Closed – Implemented
NNSA concurred with the recommendation and said steps would be taken to improve NSDD's program plan. In February 2017, NSDD issued a revised program plan that more clearly articulates how and when it will achieve its goals and complete key activities. For example, the program plan details the NSDD program's three strategic goals and corresponding strategic objectives. According to the program plan, each strategic objective is associated with several performance goals, which is in response to GAO's recommendation to include measurable goals and performance measures that align with those goals. NSDD's February 2017 program plan also provides additional guidance on factors the program will take into consideration to determine whether or not a partner country may require additional financial assistance to operate, maintain, and sustain the NSDD-provided radiation detection equipment. For example, the plan states that NSDD may continue purchasing spare parts beyond the typical 3- to 5-year transition period for a country that is considered high threat for trafficking and is committed to operating the NSDD-provided radiation detection equipment effectively, but lacks resources to sustain the equipment. As a result of NNSA's implementation of this recommendation, Congress and NNSA decision makers will have additional information to assess the status, benefits, and performance of the NSDD program.

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Program managementSmugglingHomeland securityRadiation detection devicesNuclear smugglingInternational relationsNuclear energyNuclear securityNuclear materialsProgram evaluationRadiation detection