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Friday, June 11, 2010

The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Program: Background and Issues for Congress

Dana A. Shea
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

John D. Moteff
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Daniel Morgan
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with developing and procuring equipment to prevent a terrorist nuclear or radiological attack in the United States. At the forefront of DNDO's efforts are technologies currently deployed and under development whose purpose is to detect smuggled nuclear and radiological materials. These technologies include existing radiation portal monitors and next generation replacements known as advanced spectroscopic portals (ASPs).

Customs and Border Protection officers use radiation portal monitors to detect radiation emitted from conveyances, such as trucks, entering the United States. When combined with additional equipment to identify the source of the emitted radiation, they provide a detection and identification capability to locate smuggled nuclear and radiological materials. The ASPs currently under testing integrate these detection and identification steps into a single process. By doing this, DHS aims to reduce the impact of radiation screening on commerce while increasing its ability to detect illicit nuclear material.

The speed of ASP development and deployment, the readiness of ASP technology, and the potential benefits of the ASP program relative to its cost have all been topics of extensive congressional interest. Congress has held oversight hearings on the ASP program since 2006. Additionally, since FY2007, Congress has each year required that the Secretary of Homeland Security certify that ASPs will result in a "significant increase in operational effectiveness" before DHS can obligate appropriated funds for full-scale ASP procurement. The DNDO asserts that the secretarial certification and the full-scale production decision will be made separately. Secretarial certification is still pending.

Laboratory and field tests of the ASPs, cost-benefit analyses, and other activities are under way to inform the Secretary's certification decision. Among the issues Congress faces are whether to further define the expected performance of the ASP systems through additional legislation; how to assess whether the ASP systems are technologically ready to be deployed; how to weigh the potential economic and security benefits of ASP deployment against its financial cost; and whether the certification process developed by DHS to establish a "significant increase in operational effectiveness" is well founded.

Date of Report: May 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: RL34750
Price: $29.95

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