Auditors warn about ending lifespan of radiation portal monitors in seaports

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Radiation portal monitor equipment at major U.S. container ports will start reaching obsolesce in 2014 based on initial estimates of a 10 year lifespan, says the Homeland Security Department office of inspector general. Unless service life can be extended or replacements installed, there will be no useful radiation monitors left at seaports by 2021, auditors say in a Jan. 29 report (.pdf).

A 2006 law, the SAFE Port Act, mandated that containers entering the 22 busiest ports be screened for radiation, which the monitors do passively as containers are rolled through them at a rate of 5 miles per hour. According to the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, 444 deployed portal monitors screen 99 percent of inbound containers at seaports; the other 1 percent debark at low-volume seaports.

DNDO and Customs and Border Protection--DNDO is responsible for deploying the monitors and CBP for maintaining them after the first year of operation--have collectively spent $623 million between fiscals 2002 and 2011 on the machines.

A DNDO effort to develop a next generation of radiation screening equipment, the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal program, ended in cancelation in 2011. The office has created the Polyvinyl-Toluene Improvement Program in a bid to increase service life and efficiency of existing radiation portal monitors, but implementation will not begin until fiscal 2014 and "with very limited funding," auditors say.

DNDO initially had a $25 million annual budget for the RPM program, but lately it's been just $5 million yearly.

"With greatly reduced projected future funding for the RPM program, alternate sources of funding will have to be obtained or significant scope and services must be cut," auditors say.

They also criticize CBP and DNDO for not ensuring that the inventory of existing equipment is complete and accurate. In addition, CBP has let some monitors lay idle for years and in some places has needlessly doubled monitors so that each shipment gets screened twice. Inspections by auditors at seven seaports showed that 10 percent of the monitors were going unused. CBP, auditors note, "does not always monitor and evaluate changes in the seaport screening environments to promptly relocate RPMs as necessary."

For more:
- download the report, OIG-13-26 (.pdf)

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