Over $3 billion and seven years since U.S. intelligence discovered al Qaeda kingpin Osama Bin Laden was seeking a nuclear bomb, terrorists can still drive a radioactive truck through the holes in America's border defenses, a government watchdog agency suggested Tuesday.
"The polyvinyl toluene (PVT) portal monitors CBP currently uses for this screening can detect radiation but cannot identify the type of material causing an alarm," the Government Accountability Office's top nuclear detector expert told a House panel.
"As a result, monitors' radiation alarms "can be set off even by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, or granite tile because these materials contain small amounts of benign, naturally occurring radioactive material."
But a new detector under development that costs almost three times as much hasn't done much better during years of evaluation, even after the tests were cocked to make the devices look better, said Gene Aloise, GAO's director of Natural Resources and Environment.
Deploying the new Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) monitors, as the Department of Homeland Security intends, will cost $2 billion.
The federal government has already "spent more than $3 billion since 2002 to field devices intended to detect radioactive material being smuggled through border crossings with Canada and Mexico or through seaports." according to Global Security Newswire.
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairing the oversight hearing of the Committee on Science and Technology, balked at spending billions more on a new device whose reliability is unproven.
"It will cost billions to deploy the newest radiation detection equipment at our ports and borders, when the existing technology still appears to be more reliable," Miller said.
"It's critically important to have equipment that detects radioactive materials that could be used for a nuclear bomb or a 'dirty bomb,' but it's almost as important that the equipment not detect radioactive materials that aren't there.
"We can't afford to shut down our ports because our machines have the hiccups," Miller said.
A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said technical problems "take time" to solve.
"Testing and evaluation for ASP systems are still ongoing," DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in an emailed statement. "Delays in certification have been related to issues of operational ease and reliability - problems that take time to resolve."
The department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, or DNDO, she added, "has created a comprehensive and rigorous testing program with the end user (Customs and Border Patrol) involved in all program decisions."
But GAO's Aloise didn't sound confident about the integrity of the DNDO's testing program.
"Since 2006, we have been reporting on issues associated with the cost and performance of the ASPs and the lack of rigor in testing this equipment," Aloise told the subcommittee.
"For example, we found that tests DNDO conducted in early 2007 used biased test methods that enhanced the apparent performance of ASPs and did not use critical CBP operating procedures that are fundamental to the performance of current handheld radiation detectors."
And then there were the costs.
"In 2008 we estimated the lifecycle cost of each standard cargo version of the ASP (including deployment costs) to be about $822,000, compared with about $308,000 for the [current] PVT standard cargo portal, and the total program cost for DNDO's latest plan for deploying radiation portal monitors--which relies on a combination of ASPs and PVTs and does not deploy radiation portal monitors at all border crossings--to be about $2 billion."
DHS officials have said "they hope to deploy 1,400 of the new machines at a cost of roughly $1.2 billion to detect materials that could be used in a radiological or nuclear weapon," according to Global Security Newswire, a National Journal publication.
"The department has already spent roughly $230 million on the effort, with each sensor expected to cost approximately $822,000," it said.
After invading Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. forces found evidence that al Qaeda was interested in acquiring a nuclear device and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
"Al Qaeda views the acquisition of WMD as a religious obligation," proliferation expert David Albright wrote after analyzing reports of captured documents.
Its ability to develop WMD technology in Afghanistan was "limited," Albright said, "and few believe al Qaeda obtained nuclear weapons while it was entrenched there.
"On the other hand," he added, "al Qaeda's determination to get nuclear weapons along with its increased ability to obtain outside technical assistance, lead to the conclusion that if al Qaeda had remained in Afghanistan, it would have likely acquired nuclear weapons eventually."
At the time of Albright's writing year after the invasion, al Qaeda was still on the run. Since then, while suffering grievous losses from counterterrorism operations and Predator drone attacks, its leadership appears to be intact and its Taliban allies growing stronger.
"As a result, preventing al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from getting nuclear weapons or other WMD must be an overarching goal of the United States and the international community," Albright warned.