Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Radiation Detectors: Here, There, and Everywhere

The Secure Freight Initiative is getting its first operational tests, says Government Technology:

The departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Energy (DOE) announced that operational testing is underway in Honduras and Pakistan to strengthen global supply chain security by scanning shipping containers for nuclear or radiological materials before they are allowed to depart for the United States. The tests represent the initial phase of the Secure Freight Initiative announced Dec. 7, 2006, which involves the deployment of nuclear detection devices to six foreign ports.

Secure Freight Initiative testing in Puerto Cortes, Honduras, started on April 2, 2007. Tests in Port Qasim, Pakistan, the first port to participate in Secure Freight Initiative, began in March of this year. Four other Secure Freight Initiative ports are expected to initiate tests this year. They are: Southampton in the United Kingdom; Salalah in Oman; Port of Singapore; and the Gamman Terminal at Port Busan in Korea.

Data gathered from overseas scanning of U.S. bound containers will be transmitted in near real-time to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officers working in overseas ports and to the National Targeting Center. The data will be combined with other risk assessment information to improve analysis, targeting and scrutiny of high-risk containers.
But this doesn't mean that our problems are solved. Overseas dectectors are just one of a number of concentric rings of protection. (And even accurate detection won't help unless appropriate actions are taken in response to the recognition of a threat.)

It's worth noting that a recent GAO report said that the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) needs to compile better testing data on radiation detection systems - and, more immediately relevant to state and local homeland security personnel - DNDO needs to communicate better with state and local authorities, because they're responsible for some of those rings of protection.

The new GAO report extends their report of last October, in which they criticized DNDO's testing of Advanced Spectroscopic Portals (ASPs). (My summary of October's report is here.)
Current portal monitors, made of polyvinyl toluene (plastic) and known as “PVTs,” detect the presence of radiation but cannot distinguish between benign, naturally occurring radiological materials (NORM) such as ceramic tile, and dangerous materials such as highly enriched uranium (HEU). DNDO hopes that the next generation of portal monitors, known as “Advanced Spectroscopic Portals” (ASP), will be able to detect and more specifically identify radiological and nuclear materials within a shipping container. DNDO has stated that it will begin conducting tests of ASPs in February 2007 and begin fielding ASPs in spring 2007.

As of October 2006, which is the most recent date for which complete data are available, DNDO and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had installed 912 portal monitors at the nation’s points of entry. All of the portal monitors are PVTs. According to senior DNDO officials, DHS plans to deploy at ports of entry this year 60 of the 80 ASPs that it has purchased with fiscal year 2006 funds. DNDO plans to use the remaining 20 ASPs for further testing or refurbishment after it has completed its tests on ASPs this year. Ultimately, DHS plans to deploy about 3,000 portal monitors at the nation’s points of entry by September 2009. However, as we reported in March 2006, CBP’s deployment of portal monitors is behind schedule, and it appears unlikely that CBP will be able to reach its deployment goal on schedule.
That sounds okay, even if it's a bit behind schedule. But ... will the detectors work? That's a little less certain. Testing is incomplete:
DNDO has not yet collected a comprehensive inventory of testing information on commercially available PVT portal monitors. Such information—if collected and used—could improve DNDO’s understanding of how well portal monitors detect different radiological and nuclear materials under varying conditions.

According to radiation detection experts, portal monitor tests are important because they help determine how well the monitors work in real-life situations and provide information for making the monitors better. In addition, DNDO and radiation detection experts agree that portal monitors should be tested both in a laboratory-controlled setting, to learn about their performance capabilities, and under an assortment of real-life conditions, such as at seaports, to learn how well they perform under various environmental conditions in the field.
So there is some uncertainty there. Complicating matters further, state and local agencies are expected to purchase and install radiation detectors, based on their own knowledge (limited) and DNDO's advice (based on an incomplete survey of test results):
Furthermore, according to DNDO’s Expenditure Plan, DNDO expects to rely heavily on the participation of state and local agencies to help protect the interior of the nation from a radiological or nuclear attack. In this regard, DNDO plans to support these agencies’ efforts to develop radiation detection and interdiction capabilities. For example, DNDO plans include working with state and local agencies to, among other things, deploy fixed and mobile radiation detection systems to help defend major, high-risk cities. As part of DNDO’s Securing the Cities Initiative, it plans to identify a limited number of high-risk regions, then provide these regions with federally owned radiation detection equipment along with related training and other support packages. DNDO expects that state and local agencies will eventually purchase their own equipment and assume increasingly greater responsibilities in radiation detection efforts within their borders.
To their credit, DNDO has made efforts to communicate with state and local authorities - but they have made a basic error of information-sharing: they have not asked state and local authorities what kind of information they need. (Information -sharing 101: it has to be a two-way street).
To further assist states and localities in their radiation detection efforts, DNDO has begun training state and local officials on how to operate radiation detection equipment. For example, state officials may attend 2-day training courses for law enforcement officials at DHS’s Counter Terrorism Operation Support facility at NTS. Moreover, DNDO has worked to get DHS to provide grants to state and local governments to, among other things, fund their radiation detection efforts. For instance, in September 2006 DHS issued grants totaling $3.2 million to states such as Kentucky and South Carolina to invest in fixed, mobile, and handheld radiation detection equipment at interstate truck weigh stations. While DHS provides some information to states and localities on radiation detection equipment, officials from some states told us that DHS has not sought much input from them on what types of information they find most useful or valuable.

[O]fficials from 8 states and the District of Columbia told us they would benefit from having more direct guidance to assist them in making purchasing decisions. According to officials from these 9 entities, they could use DNDO's input to help overcome their lack of experience and technical expertise.
To give DNDO their due, they really are trying:
DNDO is improving its efforts to provide technical and operational information about radiation portal monitors to state and local authorities. For example, DNDO recently helped to establish a Web site (the Responder Knowledge Base) that, among other things, includes information for state and local officials on radiation detection equipment products and performance requirements. However, some state representatives with whom we spoke, particularly those from states with less experience conducting radiation detection programs, would like to see DNDO provide more prescriptive advice on what types of radiation detection equipment to deploy and how to use it.
And they're somewhat limited in the advice they can give:
DNDO maintains that federal regulation prohibits it from recommending to state and local officials portal monitors that are made and sold by specific manufacturers.
And they recognize the problem:
DHS also concurred with our recommendation that it confer with state and local officials regarding their information needs, pointing out a number of ongoing efforts to disseminate information. These include: meeting with its stakeholder group comprised of representatives from 22 states, offering help at establishing standards, providing test reports, developing response protocols, providing detection training, and facilitating access to federal experts for alarm adjudication, analysis, and nuclear detection-related information and intelligence.
But still, a problem's a problem.

To sum up: DHS' plan is to install radiation detectors overseas, in U.S. ports, and in U.S. cities. It's all protective intervention, with the goal of finding radioactive needles in the haystack of cargo. They are going to rely on state and local officials to do some of this detection, with some limited guidance from DNDO.

But the testing data on the radiation detectors is somewhat questionable, and the deployment schedule is falling behind. Hmm...

State and local authorities might want to consider other steps, such as identifying local sources of radioactivity and collaborating with their caretakers regarding their security (e.g., hospitals, food irradiators, oil and gas drilling operations, etc.) Another idea is what New York did - conduct a baseline radiological survey of the area, so that it easier to spot anomalous radiation.

The best security system will not solely rely on detection. The "detection" set of concentric rings should only be one in a system of concentric rings.

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