WASHINGTON – Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., along with Senator Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, House Committee on Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and Congressman James Langevin, D-R.I., Wednesday called on the Department of Homeland Security to hold off on a $1.2 billion acquisition of nuclear radiation monitors until questions about their reliability, performance, and effectiveness have been addressed.
In a letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, the lawmakers identified “persistent concerns” raised by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the testing and evaluation of the monitors by the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). In May, Congress requested a comprehensive audit by GAO to “verify the reliability” of the portal screening program “in realistic operational settings” to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are spent effectively.
“As promising radiation detection technologies move through DNDO’s evolutionary spiral development pipeline toward maturity, the office will need the flexibility to address unexpected issues,” the letter said. “We believe GAO can make a singular contribution by verifying the reliability, objectivity and validity of DNDO testing procedures, data, results, and DNDO evaluations or reports based on those test results that are submitted in support of certification.”
In the DHS FY 2007 budget, Congress provided funding for DNDO to begin buying so-called Advanced Spectroscopic Portal radiation detection sensors. However, as a result of questions GAO raised about a June 2006 Cost Benefit Analysis that DHS had submitted in support the ASP procurement, the FY 2007 Conference Report required that the Homeland Security Secretary personally certify that the new monitors will provide a “significant increase in operational effectiveness” over current radiation portal monitors that use a different technology to detect nuclear smuggling.
As a result of those questions, Secretary Chertoff recently decided to have technical experts from outside DHS conduct an independent review of the reliability of the detection monitors. In the letter to the Secretary, the lawmakers applauded this decision, but urged him to “carefully consider” the findings of the simultaneous GAO audit as well.
“We understand the technical nature of these systems and therefore applaud your decision to use an independent review team to assist you and the DHS Investment Board in your decision-making. It is our view, however, an independent evaluation by GAO will best serve the oversight responsibilities of Congress and ensure public confidence in your ultimate decision,” they wrote.
The full text of the letter is below:
August 15, 2007
The Honorable Michael Chertoff
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528
Dear Secretary Chertoff:
Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack against the United States is the highest priority of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Consequently, it is vitally important to the nation’s security that the first major investment by the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) succeed in significantly improving the operational capacity of portal radiation monitors to detect nuclear smuggling. DNDO is a national level, joint, interagency office that was established in April 2005 to serve as “the primary entity of the United States Government to further develop, acquire, and support the deployment of an enhanced” domestic nuclear detection system and be the “single accountable organization” within DHS for accelerating the development, improvement and effective use of radiation detection technologies. The purpose of this letter is two-fold. First, we write to express our support for your recent decision to have technical experts from outside DHS conduct an independent review of the reliability of DNDO “test procedures, test results, associated technology assessments and the cost-benefit analyses” prior to your certification of the $1.2 billion Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) acquisition. We agree with you that a first generation spectroscopic portal monitor equipped with Sodium Iodide crystals will be a fundamentally “new type” of portal radiation monitor and this important investment requires careful consideration.
Second, we ask that prior to your certification of the merits of the ASP procurement or DHS Investment Review Board approval for Full Rate Production of the new systems, you carefully consider the findings of a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of audit issues associated with the reliability and objectivity of DNDO testing of ASP monitors earlier this year and the adequacy of Field Validation and Operational Assessments of ASP Low Rate Initial Production models in realistic operational settings.
Persistent uncertainty about DNDO testing has delayed ASP acquisition
DNDO was established in April 2005 and reports directly to the DHS Office of the Secretary. The primary mission of DNDO is to serve as a trusted agent for the development, testing and acquisition of advanced radiation detection equipment on behalf of DHS agencies and to design a global nuclear detection architecture. The Safe Ports Act of 2006 transferred all DHS radiological and nuclear detection testing authority and funding to DNDO, giving the office end-to-end control of DHS radiation detection research, development, testing, evaluation and acquisition activities at DHS.
This pivotal role has made DNDO the primary source of cost, benefit, performance and technology assessment data that DHS provides to Congress in seeking funding for major investments planned and managed by DNDO. This holistic approach has its strengths, but DNDO’s stand-alone design makes it essential that DNDO testing and evaluation practices are guided by a structured, knowledge-based methodology that is scientifically sound and transparent.
Recognizing the need for objective assessments of the readiness, maturity and performance of promising radiation detection technologies, the DHS Congressional Budget Justification for FY 2007 emphasized that DNDO procurements will “be anchored by an independent assessment of technologies” at the Nevada Test Site and other venues by DNDO working in partnership with National Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Despite these assurances, GAO has identified persistent concerns about DNDO testing and evaluation practices. As a result, the FY 2007 DHS Appropriations Conference Report, which supported continued testing of Sodium Iodide-based ASP prototypes, prohibited the Department from moving forward with full-scale manufacture and deployment of first generation ASP radiation monitors until the DHS Secretary personally certifies and reports that a “significant increase in operational effectiveness merits such a decision.”
Limitations on NIST role during DNDO testing in 2007
During comprehensive tests of radiation portal monitors in 2004 by the DHS Directorate of Science and Technology (S&T) and an initial test campaign by DNDO in 2005, DHS took the prudent step of contracting with NIST to analyze the test data and write a final report on the test results. In both instances, NIST produced comprehensive final reports that ranked the systems according to various test criteria, documented the analysis of test data and, where relevant, disclosed test execution problems and limitations in the quality of the test data
However, for the testing this year at the Nevada Test Site of ASP Engineering Development prototypes, the role of NIST was limited to data reduction and statistical analysis. According to the January 12, 2007, “DNDO Test Plan In Support of Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Production Decision Conducted at the Nevada Test Site (DNDO Test Plan)”, the DNDO staff planned to use the NIST data tables and statistical analysis to produce a final report that combined the results of testing at the Nevada site and other venues.
Reliability of spectroscopic technology in extreme climates is unknown
We welcome recent statements that no ASP Full Rate Production models will be deployed for operational use until CBP is satisfied with their reliability and performance, but we are concerned about the effort to limit the amount of field validation testing conducted in realistic operational environments. We are informed that the ASP system will be the first commercial portal radiation monitor that uses Sodium Iodide crystals or a similar technology based on High Purity Germanium crystals
While DNDO has succeeded in developing a Low Rate Initial Production version of crystal-based spectroscopic systems, it is presently unknown whether they can be used reliably for the new mission of screening cargo containers and trucks at domestic ports of entry, especially under extreme temperatures or operating conditions. The reliability and maintainability of either Sodium Iodide or High Purity Germanium crystals will have a direct bearing on the life-cycle costs to maintain and operate the new system.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has been the primary contractor of the Radiation Portal Monitor Program and, since 2002 has deployed 1,000 Poly Vinyl Toulene (PVT) radiation portal monitors—a reliable plastic-based system that detects radiation inside cargo containers, but cannot identify the type of radioisotope. After the initial installations of PVT in 2003, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) directed PNNL to begin developing a crystal-based spectroscopic portal monitor that could detect radiation as well as a PVT, but could also discriminate between radioisotopes.
In technical documents for CBP, PNNL described the potential of Sodium Iodide crystals or High Purity Germanium crystals to improve identification, but cautioned the no commercial version of a spectroscopic portal radiation monitor had been built using the crystals. A June 11, 2004 paper by PNNL cautioned that “Sodium iodide is also notorious for being prone to internal cracking along crystal cleavage planes either as a result of mechanical or thermal shock.
The only way to be sure of the readiness of the technology for successful application to the new mission of high-volume cargo screening at ports of entry, PNNL counseled, was to deploy a limited number of advanced prototypes in all or most domestic ports of entry, and have CBP officers operate the new systems for an extended period of time under a variety of conditions. “Before any ultimate decisions are made, a first commercial system must be built and extensively tested in order to determine if there is sufficient benefit to justify the greatly increased cost,” the PNNL paper said.
On December 20, 2004 CBP approved Version 4.0 of the Radiation Portal Monitor Program Project Execution Plan that outlined how an all-spectroscopic system with Sodium Iodide crystals could be developed and deployed. A site-by-site deployment plan called for initial testing in January 2005 of three ASP prototypes, followed by a “phased deployment” over two years of 56 systems of various designs. At the end of two years, PNNL planned to use the performance data and knowledge gained from operating the systems in a variety of locations through a full cycle of seasons to revise the performance specifications for a finished production model that would then replace all PVT systems.
Limited evaluation of ASP monitors in realistic operational settings.
The Jan. 12, 2007 DNDO Test Plan established four types of tests to support certification. Each test addressed one of four Critical Operational Issues, three of which were said to include “Field Validation.” The schedule allowed one month for Field Validation (from April 16 through May 14) with CBP officers operating ASP Low Rate Initial Production models at four domestic ports of entry. The schedule said that on June 5, DNDO would request approval to proceed to Full Rate Production of ASP systems. In April and May DNDO officials provided briefings to Congressional staff and members of Congress regarding the results of the testing at the Nevada Test Site in February and March, 2007 of three ASP Engineering Development Models and a production version of the PVT and the schedule for the certification process. During a briefing April 27, 2007 with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, a DNDO official said that the Field Validation period in realistic operational settings at four domestic ports might be limited to two or three weeks. On May 25, 2007, DNDO submitted briefings slides with a new schedule that allowed for three weeks of Field Validation followed by a request for approval of full-scale production on July 24.
Concerns expressed by Bureau of Customs and Border Protection
During this period, senior officials with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told GAO and investigators from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that it was critical to verify the reliability of the first generation ASP system in realistic operational settings. While they were uncertain how long the Field Validation process would take, based on the agency’s experience with the initial installation of PVT systems in 2002 and 2003, CBP officials stated it could be many months before the agency was comfortable with the reliability of the new system.
On May 14th, we asked that GAO audit the ASP certification process in a request letter that was co-signed by chairmen or ranking members in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We questioned “whether a few weeks of testing in operational settings will be sufficient to determine the readiness of the ASP systems for full deployment” and emphasized Congress’s need for timely GAO findings regarding the validity of the DHS certification process.
On June 5, DNDO provided the Committee with an amended plan for ASP certification that added a fifth stage to the testing process for certification, Critical Operational Issue 5, which would address “Availability” during an unspecified period “after deployment.” In the context of testing and evaluation, the term “Availability” refers to the operational reliability, maintainability and down-time of a new system based on how often it is out-of-service for maintenance or repairs and how long it typically takes to replace critical components that fail.
On June 29, the Committee was notified that DNDO had tasked Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)—the prime contractor for ASP installations—to conduct a three-phase “Operational Assessment” of ASP Low Rate Initial Production models installed at four domestic ports. PNNL briefing slides showed a revised timeline that moved the date for certification to early September, with the third phase “Field Validation of Enhanced LRIP ASP Systems” being deferred until October.
Importance of ensuring reliable DNDO testing and technology assessment
DNDO has been given a large and complex task. As promising radiation detection technologies move through DNDO’s evolutionary spiral development pipeline toward maturity, the office will need the flexibility to address unexpected issues. At the same time, the complexity of this venture and the present uncertainty about the readiness of new radiation detection technology applications–such as Sodium Iodide crystals or High Purity Germanium crystals–—require a disciplined, structured and knowledge-based approach that includes strong systems engineering, reliable technology assessments and external review.
We applaud your recognition of the Department’s need for an independent review of DNDO’s testing and for an assessment of DNDO’s efforts associated with the ASP acquisition. We appreciate the assurance that the Committee will be provided with a copy of the panel’s report prior to a decision on certification. We have been informed that the team will be lead by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Assuming the review panel also includes a cross-section of experts from such trusted entities as the National Laboratories and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and has full access to DNDO documents and test data, the review should enhance Executive Branch stewardship of this important acquisition.
Importance of GAO review to long-term success of ASP acquisition
Under the circumstances, however, we believe GAO can make a singular contribution by verifying the reliability, objectivity and validity of DNDO testing procedures, data, results and DNDO evaluations or reports based on those test results that are submitted in support of certification. Presently, GAO is proceeding with two audit engagements related to DNDO. An audit for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is focused on issues associated with DNDO testing and evaluation activities; a second audit being conducted on behalf of our Committees is focused on the certification process, the design of the nuclear detection architecture and Department’s management of this critical mission.
With respect to the ASP acquisition, we intend that GAO provide Congress with objective and thorough audit findings regarding the extent to which DNDO testing and evaluation practices: (1) are reliable and scientifically sound; (2) have confirmed that the first generation ASP systems will provide a significant operational improvement in the ability of CBP officers to detect nuclear smuggling at domestic ports of entry; (3) have identified any serious limitations in the capability of ASP systems to detect and identify nuclear threat material in cargo containers; and (4) have established the reliability and availability of ASP systems and their underlying crystal-based technologies for use in demanding cargo screening environments.
GAO assurances review of testing will not delay ASP acquisition.
Our May 14th audit request asked that GAO notify the Committee of any delays in gaining access to documents or information regarding DNDO. We are informed that in recent weeks DNDO has provided GAO with numerous documents, including a report on the results of one phase of the tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site and additional data regarding previously undisclosed blind tests that were not described in the Test Plan. We appreciate this cooperation.
We understand that GAO is still awaiting DNDO material that includes the final results of previously undisclosed “blind” tests DNDO has told GAO were conducted at the Nevada Test Site; the results of a “Phase 3” of the Nevada tests; the results of Field Validation and Availability evaluations of ASP Low Rate Initial Production models in realistic operational settings; and any Cost Benefit Analysis or other document based on the test results that DNDO submits to you in support of certification or to the DHS Investment Review Board to obtain Key Decision Point 3 approval to move to Full Rate Production. During recent meetings with the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, DNDO Director Vayl S. Oxford said that once all test data is analyzed, DNDO will provide GAO the balance of test data, test results and documentation for testing and evaluation conducted of ASP and PVT systems during 2007.
Senior GAO officials have assured the Committee staff that their review will not delay the certification process. Once auditors have the test data, test results and other documentation in hand, GAO officials state that this aspect of their audit work can be completed in a matter of weeks and will not delay procurement. DNDO’s current schedule calls for seeking Secretarial certification in September, which will allow ample time for GAO to complete this aspect of the audit engagement.
To carry out this important exercise of Congressional oversight, GAO has assembled a multi-disciplinary audit team that includes senior auditors from GAO’s Natural Resources Division, Acquisitions and Sourcing Management Division and Applied Research Methods Division who have extensive experience auditing major military and civilian acquisition programs that entail the new application of advanced technology, including radiological and nuclear technologies. Should any aspect of the DNDO audit engagements require highly specialized or technical expertise, GAO has in place a contract with the National Academy of Sciences to provide GAO with technical support from an independent panel of experts.
In closing, we understand the technical nature of these systems and therefore applaud your decision to use an independent review team to assist you and the DHS Investment Board in your decision-making. It is our view, however, that an independent evaluation by GAO will best serve the oversight responsibilities of Congress and ensure public confidence in your ultimate decision.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Joseph I. Lieberman
Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson
Rep. James R. Langevin