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Nuclear Vulnerabilities

DESPITE BILLIONS of dollars spent by the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) in 2007 alone, a new report from the investigative arm of Congress finds that the United States still has no “overarching strategic plan” to detect the movement of radiological and nuclear materials through “potential smuggling routes.” The research was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and was discussed in a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

DNDO’s primary responsibility has been to outline a global nuclear detection architecture (and the office is also supposed to implement the domestic portion of that architecture). GAO lauded DNDO for its work, but pointed out at the hearing and in its recent report that although DNDO has completed that architecture, it has not set out a plan to define how it will “achieve and monitor its goal of detecting the movement of radiological and nuclear materials” through smuggling routes and between points of entry.

One problem is the DNDO has little implementation power, as Dana A. Shea of the Congressional Research Service explained during the hearing. Although DNDO has identified 74 federal programs that combat smuggling of nuclear and radiological material, Shea pointed out that DNDO is a “coordinating” office, not an implementing agency. It can set priorities in implementing the detection architecture it has set out, but those may not align with the priorities in the participating agencies.

To address that problem, Shea suggested that congressional policymakers might need to “choose between these priorities when appropriating funds.” Shea also suggested providing the DNDO director with the ability to review and assess budgets of the agencies in the architecture.

Charles Galloway, DNDO’s deputy director, testified during the hearing that, “on principle I think it would be a good idea. In reality it would be very difficult to actually implement and make effective,” because even after the review of the budget by DNDO, agencies would have to go through budgeting reviews that include various competing interests within each agency.

Some argue that DNDO’s mission, focused mainly on detection of materials and prevention of detonation, is simply not enough to keep nuclear weapons out of the United States. If terrorists get their hands on a nuclear device, it is likely they’ll be able to bring it over and detonate it, according to Robert Nesbit, of the MITRE Corporation, who is also a member of the Defense Science Board.

Just obtaining a nuclear device “shows a level of skill way beyond the normal terrorist that we deal with,” said Nesbit at the hearing. If they had the skill, expertise, and financing to get their hands on a device, they could be clever about getting it into the United States.

Nesbit argued that the emphasis should be elsewhere. Rather than focusing on detection at entry points, the government should put additional resources into intelligence to ensure that someone doesn’t get a nuclear device in the first place.

Additionally, Nesbit said, the United States needs to publicize its diplomatic and military response options as a deterrent to countries that might play a role in attacking the United States with nuclear weapons. Those policies served as a powerful deterrent during the Cold War, he said. Of course, such deterrents may not work with a terrorist or group that is not affiliated with a nation-state.

Another problem with the detection model is the limitation on the technology used. The current tools that border inspectors and port patrols use to detect nuclear material cannot as yet detect the difference between harmless radiological material, such as ceramic tiles and bananas, and harmful nuclear material, like plutonium, the GAO’s David Maurer noted at the hearing.

Moreover, a recent GAO audit of DNDO’s radiation portal monitor project, which includes testing of a newer detector known as the advanced spectroscopic portal monitor, finds that DNDO’s cost estimates of equipping U.S. ports of entry with radiation detectors are unreliable and obscure the program’s true cost. GAO estimates that the program will cost as much as $1.7 billion more than DNDO originally projected. GAO also states that DHS appears to have set a low bar for the effectiveness criteria.

The report continues that the new machines will only monitor cargo, a significant scale-down from their initially broader intended use. The report states that DNDO has not yet provided Congress the full scope or costs of the program, and it recommends that DNDO do that. DNDO agrees with this recommendation.