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GAO Faults Cost-Benefit Study Of Systems Detecting Nukes In Cargo

By | October 23, 2006

      Both BMD, Cargo Screeners Needed As North Korea Threatens

      The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) didn’t perform a proper cost-benefit analysis on procurement of new devices to detect nuclear weapons or material being smuggled through ports, the Government Accountability Office found.

      GAO also found that DHS and its unit, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), didn’t base their analysis on available performance data for detection systems, and didn’t fully evaluate all of their costs and benefits.

      The report was prepared for the most senior Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate appropriations committees.

      Detection systems aim to ferret out nuclear weapons that a rogue state such as North Korea, or a terrorist group such as al Qaeda, might attempt to spirit into the United States inside any of millions of shipping cargo containers that pour through U.S. ports.

      That cargo screening barrier is a complement to U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, the other likely means of delivering nuclear weapons to targets in the United States.

      The urgency of standing up both BMD and cargo screening systems has increased recently, as North Korea fired a series of missiles while Americans celebrated the July 4 holiday, and as North Korea also announced this month that it tested a nuclear weapon underground, while threatening to conduct another atomic bomb test.

      President Bush has set a high priority on protecting Americans from another terrorist attack that would be far worse than the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001.

      “DNDO’s cost-benefit analysis does not provide a sound analytical basis for DNDO’s decision to purchase and deploy new portal monitor technology,” GAO told the congressional leaders.

      “NDO 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,” the report continued.

      “Performance tests also showed that the ability of new radiation detection portal monitors to correctly identify masked [highly enriched uranium, or 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,” if terrorists were to smuggle HEU for a dirty bomb, or a complete nuclear weapon containing HEU, through a port.

      Too, what if the smuggled material or weapons involve some fissile matter other than HEU? Would shipping container inspection systems detect that danger?

      “DNDO … 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,” the GAO found.

      “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.”

      This is serious business, the GAO report indicated.

      “Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, combating terrorism has been one of the nation’s highest priorities,” the report observed.

      “As part of that effort, preventing nuclear and radioactive material from being smuggled into the United States — perhaps to be used by terrorists in a nuclear weapon or in a radiological dispersal device (a ‘dirty bomb’) — has become a key national security objective.

      DHS oversees its units, the DNDO and the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agencies, in attempting to block terrorists from shipping nuclear weapons or materials through ports into the United States.

      DNDO is charged with procuring the portal monitoring systems, while CPB continues attempting to interdict dangerous nuclear and radiological materials through the use of radiation detection equipment, including portal monitors.

      DNDO didn’t focus on whether radiation detection systems it acquired would fail to detect nuclear or radiological material, but instead focused on systems that would speed cargo through ports to avoid any costly delays to shippers or other companies.

      “DNDO did not assess the likelihood that radiation detection equipment would either misidentify or fail to detect nuclear or radiological material,” the watchdog agency found. “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.”

      As well, DNDO system purchase price assumptions were far off the mark.

      “DNDO … used questionable assumptions about the procurement costs of portal monitor technology,” the report found. “DNDO assumed a purchase price for current portal monitor technology that is more than twice what CBP typically pays.”

      DHS still stands behind its cost-benefit analysis, while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the GAO report.

      But the GAO continues “to believe … that significant weaknesses in DNDO’s cost-benefit analysis precludes it from providing a reliable basis for making major procurement decisions, such as whether to invest heavily in deploying a new portal monitor technology.”

      Bush and senior Pentagon leaders have noted that for the United States to succeed in the global war on terrorism, they must succeed 100 percent of the time in detecting and blocking planned terrorist attacks, while terrorists, in order to win, need to succeed but once.

      The full GAO report entitled “Combating Nuclear Smuggling: DHS’s Cost-Benefit Analysis to Support the Purchase of New Radiation Detection Portal Monitors Was Not Based on Available Performance Data and Did Not Fully Evaluate All the Monitors’ Costs and Benefits” is a 28-page letter to the senior leaders in Congress, and can be viewed in entirety at on the Web and clicking on Reports and Testimony.

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