Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Wednesday heard testimony about the lack of coordination and uncertain effectiveness of the 74 programs across four federal departments that comprise the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture – the multi-layered “system of systems” deployed at home and abroad to keep illicit nuclear and radiological materials out of this country.

This was the sixth in a series of hearings held by the Committee to examine the threats and challenges posed by nuclear terrorism and what the federal government is doing to protect the nation against it. It was the first hearing on Capitol Hill about the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture – a system of detection technology and interdiction activities conducted by the Departments of Energy, State, Defense, and Homeland Security. DHS’ Domestic Nuclear Detection Office is the coordinating agency.

The Government Accountability Office said that “a number of coordination, technological, and management challenges” exist for the agencies responsible for the Global Architecture, while the Congressional Research Service reported that accurate information about the performance and benefits of the architecture’s component programs is “difficult to generate, measure, or even estimate.”

“The system we have in place now, I conclude, is not complete,” Lieberman said. “Our global nuclear detection architecture… may have both needless redundancies and/or dangerous gaps, which in this case is the worst of both worlds.”

Sen. Collins noted that the Committee’s work had significantly advanced the level of protection at the nation’s seaports from the importation of a nuclear or radiological device, but noted that work remains: “The SAFE Port Act, which Sen. Lieberman and I co-authored, enhanced border detection efforts by requiring that all cargo containers be scanned for radiation at the 22 largest U.S. seaports, covering 98 percent of cargo coming to the United States. The law also strengthened the Container Security Initiative, which targets high-risk cargo at foreign ports. While these represent substantial improvements from where we were just a few years ago, more needs to be done to address other potential threats and to consider the role for nuclear non-proliferation and counter-proliferation in this framework.”

Last fiscal year the architecture’s component programs cost a total of $2.8 billion – $1.1 billion to combat smuggling and secure nuclear materials held abroad, $220 million to detect materials at the border, $900 million for detection efforts within the United States, and $575 million for cross-cutting activities that support many of the other programs, like research and development, into detection technologies.

“DNDO’s job is to find and help plug gaps, Lieberman said. “But that job is made significantly more difficult by the fact that DNDO is just a coordinating agency and has no effective power to implement desired changes… We’re at a point where we must ask whether or not DNDO needs authority to review the budgets and plans of the participating agencies as well as make sure the billions of dollars we have spent and will spend are spent wisely.”

Sen. Collins said, “An important layer of the nuclear detection architecture is the role played by state and local police, firefighters, and other emergency response personnel who will be the first to confront injured people and damaged property following the explosion of a dirty bomb or a nuclear device and who may encounter radiological materials in their day-to-day public service. These state and local first responders need access to effective radiation detection equipment to protect themselves and provide situational awareness to their leadership and other government officials. It is critical that DNDO take steps to ensure that state and local responders have effective equipment available to them to detect radiation.”

Previous hearings on the issue of a terrorist nuclear attack looked at the nation’s state of preparedness for the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a major city; what kind of follow-up medical response capabilities does our nation have to treat the wounded; and do we have clear communication strategies to let the public know exactly what they need to do to protect themselves after an attack.

Today’s witnesses included: Charles Gallaway, Deputy Director, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office; Mark Mullen, Assistant Director for Architecture, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office; David C. Maurer, Acting Director, Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office; Dana A. Shea, Specialist in Science and Technology Policy , Congressional Research Service; Robert F. Nesbit, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Center for Integrated Intelligence Systems, The MITRE Corporation.

All testimony can be read here.