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Date:  June 24, 2009

Contacts:  Jennifer Walsh, Media Relations Officer

Alison Burnette, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail <>




New Detectors for Nuclear, Radiological Material in Cargo Should Not Be Acquired Until Testing Deficiencies Fixed, Cost-Benefit Analysis Completed


WASHINGTON -- A thorough cost-benefit analysis that includes an assessment of meaningful alternatives is needed to reveal the potential security advantages of deploying new detector systems to screen cargo for nuclear and radiological materials at U.S. ports and border crossings.  It is likely that the costs will exceed the savings gained from improved efficiency of the screening systems, says a new report from the National Research Council.  There are shortcomings in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's testing of these new detector systems, therefore the DHS secretary cannot conclude whether they will consistently outperform the current ones.  DHS should not proceed with further procurement of these new detector systems until the issues are addressed and the systems have been shown to be a favored option in the cost-benefit analysis.


The 2006 SAFE Port Act requires that all containers coming into the United States through major entries be scanned for radiation, and "to the extent practicable, the Secretary shall deploy next generation radiation detection technology" to enable such scanning.  In response, the department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) requested proposals for advanced spectroscopic portals (ASPs), the next generation of radiation detectors for cargo screening, to replace the current system of radiation portal monitors and handheld radioisotope identifiers, which have known deficiencies.  Before DHS can proceed with full-scale procurement of ASPs, Congress required the secretary to certify that they will provide a "significant increase in operational effectiveness" over continued use of the existing screening devices.  If ASPs are certified, DHS may spend more than $1 billion to purchase these detector systems, with a possible net lifecycle cost of more than twice that figure.  Currently, DHS is testing and evaluating the ASPs to inform the secretary's decision.


Congress asked the Research Council to advise DHS about testing, analysis, costs, and benefits of ASPs before this certification decision is made.  The ASP testing and evaluation program encountered some delays in 2008, which created the opportunity for this interim report to provide advice on how testing, evaluation, and the cost-benefit analysis should be completed.


Testing of ASPs before 2008 had serious flaws, a number of which DNDO has acknowledged and addressed, said the committee that wrote the new interim report.  In 2008, DNDO carried out physical tests to evaluate some of the limits of the ASP systems, but inadequacies remain.  These include a lack of modeling to complement the physical tests and small test sample sizes that limit the confidence of comparison testing between the old and new detector systems. 


The committee recommended an iterative testing approach, using computer models to simulate performance of the detector systems and physical experiments to test the models and identify needs for refinements.  Then the needed model refinements could be undertaken.  This iterative modeling and testing approach will allow DHS to gain a better understanding of the detector systems' performance, the committee said.


Rather than focusing on a single procurement to replace current screening technology, testing of ASPs should be viewed as a first step in improving and adapting the detector systems, the committee recommended.  DHS should develop a process for continuous improvement that could address and exploit changes in technology and the nature of commerce so the system is not outdated or obsolete by the time it is fully deployed.  DHS should begin this process by deploying the unused ASPs they already own in real ports of entry.


To determine whether the costs for these systems are reasonable and justified, a careful assessment will be needed to reveal the advantages of ASPs among alternatives, the committee said.  The cost-benefit analysis should include a clear statement of the objectives of the program; an assessment of meaningful alternatives; and a comprehensive, credible, and transparent analysis of in-scope benefits and costs.  The benefit assessment should show how the procurement contributes, relative to other possible DHS efforts and expenditures, to improving security with respect to prevention of the detonation of a nuclear or radiological device, which is the primary objective of the ASP program.  A cost-benefit analysis that is silent on this subject would be incomplete, the committee noted.


The study was sponsored by U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.  Committee members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards.  The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.


Copies of Evaluating Testing, Costs, and Benefits of Advanced Spectroscopic Portals for Screening Cargo at Ports of Entry: Interim Report are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above). 

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[ This news release and report are available at ]



Division on Earth and Life Studies

Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board


Committee on Advanced Spectroscopic Portals


Robert C. Dynes 1 (chair)


Department of Physics

University of California, San Diego; and

Professor of Physics

University of California



Richard E. Blahut 2 

Henry Magnuski Professor

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

University of Illinois



Robert R. Borchers

Chief Technology Officer

Maui High Performance Computing Center

University of Hawaii



Philip E. Coyle III

Private Consultant and Senior Adviser

World Security Institute

Sacramento, Calif.


Roger L. Hagengruber

Research Professor;

Director, Office for Policy, Security, and Technology; and

Director, Institute for Public Policy

University of New Mexico



Carl N. Henry

Private Consultant

Albuquerque, N.M.


John M. Holmes

Deputy Executive Director of Operations

Port of Los Angeles

Los Angeles


Karen Kafadar


Department of Statistics

Indiana University



C. Michael Lederer

Research Chemist and Deputy Director Emeritus

University of California Energy Institute

University of California



Keith W. Marlow


Orion International Technologies Inc.

Albuquerque, N.M.


John W. Poston Sr.


Department of Nuclear Engineering

Texas A&M University

College Station


Henry H. Willis

Professor of Policy Analysis

Pardee RAND Graduate School; and

Policy Researcher

RAND Corp.





Micah Lowenthal

Study Director



1 Member, National Academy of Sciences

2 Member, National Academy of Engineering