Wednesday, October 18, 2006

$1.2 Billion - But Will It Work?

Yesterday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that was critical of DHS' Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), who recently awarded a $1.2 billion dollar contract to a number of contractors for new portal monitors, known as “advanced spectroscopic portal monitors” (ASP), that can detect both the presence and the type of nuclear or radiological material.

DNDO tested ASPs in 2005. They set a goal of identifying highly enriched uranium (HEU) – the main ingredient in a "gun" type nuclear weapon – 95 percent of the time. But the ASP prototypes identified bare HEU only 70 to 88 percent of time. And when the HEU was masked with benign radiological materials, the success rates fell to 53 percent, 45 percent, and 17 percent for the three ASP systems tested.

GAO said:

Despite these results, DNDO did not use the information from these tests in its cost-benefit analysis. Instead, DNDO officials told us that since new portal monitors cannot meet the 95 percent level of performance, they relied on the assumption that they will reach that level of performance sometime in the future.

Moreover, DNDO’s cost-benefit analysis only considered the benefits of ASPs’ ability to detect and identify HEU and did not consider ASPs ability to detect and identify other nuclear and radiological materials.
In other words, DNDO did not consider the ASP portals' effectiveness in identifying radiological materials that would be useful in a dirty bomb, such as Cesium 137 and Cobalt 60.

GAO concludes:
DNDO’s cost-benefit analysis does not justify its recent decision to spend $1.2 billion to purchase and deploy ASP technology.
The lesson of this, as I see it, is that you have to take into account the entire spectrum of risk and reward before deciding on any particular intervention.

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