The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reassess its acquisition strategy for radiation portal monitors.
The advice follows a review which found replacement monitors have been delayed by more than three years, and those being tested have higher nuisance alarm rates than monitors currently in use at ports.
DHS’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) continues to carry out functions of its predecessor offices. For example, CWMD continues to manage a program to acquire replacements for radiation portal monitors that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates at high-volume ports. GAO’s review found that the new radiation portal monitors will be late to deploy and may not meet user needs.
CBP uses radiation portal monitors to scan incoming cargo and vehicles for elevated radiation levels that may be indicative of smuggled nuclear or radiological materials. If an alarm is triggered, the cargo container or vehicle is directed to a secondary inspection area, where a CBP officer uses a handheld radiation detector to identify the source of the radiation.
CBP officials told GAO that tests of replacement monitors resulted in higher nuisance alarm rates than originally planned. Nuisance alarms result from naturally occurring radioactive materials in certain consumer goods, requiring CBP officers to conduct a secondary scan to determine that the source of the alarm is not a threat before a cargo container or vehicle can leave the port. Reducing such alarms is a key goal of the replacement program.
As of February 2022, CWMD expected to reach initial operational capability for the replacement radiation portal monitors by March 2023 and final operational capability in the second quarter of fiscal year 2024 – more than three years longer than originally planned. CWMD expects to deploy 216 replacement radiation portal monitors in total.
According to CWMD and CBP officials, several factors contributed to delays in the program and increased nuisance alarm rates. For example, according to a CWMD document and CWMD officials, system evaluation tests conducted from December 2019 through February 2020 identified deficiencies that required over 100 corrective actions. In addition, CWMD identified a vendor’s bid protest over a contract and a government shutdown as factors contributing to delays. CBP officials also identified other factors that may have contributed to delays, including the range of threats that radiation portal monitors are required to detect. According to CBP officials, the specifications for the new monitors include requirements to detect threats that CBP considers improbable. CBP officials said that testing for these threats requires the development of special, complex software, which is not necessary for testing readily available samples of nuclear and radiological materials. They said that the complexity of the testing software led to errors that required the software to be updated and contributed to delays by adding to the testing schedule. CBP officials also said they believe that requirements to detect improbable threats have contributed to the high nuisance alarm rate yielded by the prototype monitors, compounding delays and raising concerns over the future viability of the replacement monitors. They expressed concerns about deploying new radiation portal monitors with a nuisance alarm rate that is higher than that of units currently deployed in the field, which they regard as unacceptable.
CWMD is in the planning stages of a second phase of the radiation portal monitor replacement, for which it says it is considering various design options, including an open systems architecture approach. CBP officials said they also have concerns about this second phase of the acquisition and believe that taking a new design approach may make it more complicated than the current phase.
GAO recommended that CWMD coordinate with CBP to reassess its current acquisition strategy for replacement radiation portal monitors to ensure that the selected technology or technologies meet CBP’s needs, including with respect to nuisance alarm rates. DHS concurred and said CWMD has already initiated coordination with CBP to reassess the acquisition strategy for the replacement radiation portal monitors.
To counter the delays, CBP officials told GAO that CWMD has taken some steps to improve the existing fleet of radiation portal monitors. For example, officials in CBP’s Office of Field Operations said that CWMD helped to finance and coordinate research and development conducted by the Department of Energy and a university partner to reduce nuisance alarms.
According to CBP officials, the research and development that CWMD coordinated resulted in new machine learning software that CBP had added to at least 60 radiation portal monitors in use at U.S. seaports. At one of these ports, the officials said, the new software had reduced the level of nuisance alarms tenfold. CBP intends to deploy the software to enhance portal monitors at land borders in the future.
CWMD also acquires nuclear and radiological detection technologies for the U.S. Coast Guard. Coast Guard officials told GAO that CWMD provides handheld radiation detectors as well as a new technology that allows them to transmit information from the detectors to CBP’s Office of Laboratories and Scientific Services for analysis. The Coast Guard officials said that the new transmission system filled a gap in their capabilities, enabling more secure transmission of the information to CBP. CBP officials added that CWMD helped them obtain software (developed by the Department of Energy) that enhances their ability to analyze the data the Coast Guard provides. According to CBP and Coast Guard officials, without these enhanced capabilities, their ability to detect smuggled nuclear or radiological material would be diminished. From 2019 through 2021, according to CWMD officials, CWMD procured over 38,000 personal radiation detectors for federal partners.
The government watchdog’s review also evaluated CWMD’s coordination, training and employee engagement, among other operational aspects. The state and local partners that GAO interviewed were generally satisfied with CWMD’s coordination of technology acquisition and training but said CWMD could improve in other areas, such as communicating with and convening the partners. In September 2021, CWMD issued a strategy to engage its state and local partners, but GAO’s report notes that the strategy does not specify how often CWMD will communicate with and convene partners in all threat areas.
GAO found that CWMD used employee surveys and listening sessions to identify the root causes of morale problems, after the office ranked last in a review of best places to work in government. CWMD also introduced town hall meetings in which employees share how they help accomplish the agency’s mission. Data from 2019 and 2020 federal employee workplace surveys indicate that CWMD has improved in measures of employee engagement.
GAO’s recommendations to CWMD include a formal process for resolving complaints about CWMD contractors. In response to this, CWMD is developing a standard operating procedure to meet this requirement and also improve reporting and management review of complaints relating to contractors. The DHS component expects to complete this by the end of June, 2022.