Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 17, 2006

GAO slams DNDO assessment of new radiation portal monitors

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on October 17, 2006

The GAO issued a report today that criticizes the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s cost-benefit analysis of investment in second-generation radiation portal monitors (RPMs). The report argues that this analysis does not provide a sound basis for investment in next-generation RPMs, which cost $377,000 per unit vs. $55,000 per unit for current RPMs, and according to the GAO, provide a negligible additional benefit in terms of their capabilities. From the report:

DNDO’s cost-benefit analysis does not provide a sound analytical basis for DNDO’s decision to purchase and deploy new portal monitor technology. DNDO did not use the results of its own performance tests in its cost-benefit analysis and instead relied on assumptions of the new technology’s anticipated performance level. Performance tests also showed that the ability of new radiation detection portal monitors to correctly identify masked HEU (placed next to or within another, usually more benign, radiological substance) was even more limited. According to the cost-benefit analysis and radiation detection experts to whom we spoke, masked HEU is a significant concern because it is difficult to detect. DNDO also focused the analysis exclusively on identifying HEU and did not consider in the analysis how well (either as a goal or in testing) new portal monitor technology can correctly detect or identify other dangerous radiological or nuclear materials. Furthermore, the analysis did not include the results from side-by-side tests that DNDO conducted of the advanced portal monitors and current portal monitors.

The cost-benefit analysis for acquiring and deploying portal monitors is also incomplete because it does not include all of the major costs and benefits required by DHS guidelines. In particular, DNDO did not assess the likelihood that radiation detection equipment would either misidentify or fail to detect nuclear or radiological material. Rather, it focused its analysis on reducing the time necessary to screen traffic at border check points and reduce the impact of any delays on commerce. DNDO also used questionable assumptions about the procurement costs of portal monitor technology. DNDO assumed a purchase price for current portal monitor technology that is more than twice what CBP typically pays.

The DNDO responds to these charges on pages 25-26 of the report, arguing that the testing that the GAO cited was for baselining and source selection purposes, and not intended to represent the final capabilities of second-generation RPMs. And in fairness to the DNDO, it’s inherent difficult to assess the benefits of any investment like this, since the value of any single layer in a system of protection are difficult to isolate. Nevertheless, the concerns put forward by GAO are valid, and it’s imperative that DHS not move forward with full-scale acquisition until value can be demonstrated.

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