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​​Photo Illustration by Security Management; istock​

GAO Recommends Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Program Assessment

​The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Securing the Cities program provides funding for state and local agencies to purchase equipment or provide training to detect and deter nuclear terrorism, including dirty bombs, for up to five years. So far, five cities or regions (New York–New Jersey, Los Angeles–Long Beach, National Capital Region, Houston, and Chicago) are participating in the program, spending almost $145 million in program funds since its initiation in 2007.

However, DHS is not tracking cities’ use of Securing the Cities funds or assessing their performance in the program. A May 2019 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report (Combatting Nuclear Terrorism: DHS Should Address Limitations to Its Program to Secure Key Cities​) noted that cities spent $94.5 million on detection equipment, but DHS has little assurance that cities can sustain threat detection and deterrence capabilities gained through the program. 

The program approves the purchase of several types of detection equipment, including personal radiation detectors, radiation detection backpacks, radiation isotope identification devices, and metal detection systems. Collectively, the cities spent 6 percent of program funding on training, 3 percent on staff, and 14 percent on contracts for training and services. 

While DHS officials noted that the agency is considering broadening the scope of the program and centralizing equipment acquisitions, the GAO report noted that DHS has not fully developed potential changes or documented a plan for making changes to the program; identified the basis for any such changes; or consistently communicated with cities about changes to the program. One of the original goals of the program was to encourage participants to sustain their nuclear or radiological detection programs over time, but officials from the five participating cities told GAO that if funding were to dry up or be reallocated for these programs, their radiological detection programs and capabilities would likely deteriorate. 

At a local level, the report noted, there are competing priorities—such as preventing school shootings or addressing the opioid crisis—that would take priority over radiological detection capabilities if federal funding for those capabilities were removed. 

The GAO report recommended that DHS and its Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office “regularly collect detailed information from cities on program expenditures; analyze risks related to sustainment, work with cities to address these risks, and enforce sustainment-planning requirements for cities in the program; and clearly communicate to cities how the existing program will operate until a new program is in effect.”