More than a year and a half after the Department of Homeland Security announced it would invest more than $1 billion to improve nuclear detection devices, questions still loom over the effectiveness of the new technology, and no new devices have yet been purchased or deployed.
Last summer, a year after the initial announcement of the program, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and other senior officials demonstrated yet another new and expensive radiation detector that supposedly can detect nuclear material hidden in shipping containers.
"It's really the wave of the future," Chertoff told reporters in July last year.
The new radiation portal monitors, which are supposed to detect dangerous radiological material in vehicles and containers at U.S. seaports and borders, cost about $360,000 each, around seven times what the current models used cost.
But just a few days later a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the new devices were at best 45 percent accurate, and sometimes as low as 17 percent accurate.
In the wake of that report, Congress requested that a new round of tests be conducted before any money was spent on the devices. Today, that testing process continues, and no new devices have yet been purchased. In fact, more tests are planned in the coming months.
A spokesperson at DHS told ABCNews.com that while some may consider these tests delays, the department is simply doing due diligence before purchasing the expensive equipment.
"In July 2007, the Secretary announced his intent to assemble a team of independent experts to assess the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) program and recently this Independent Review Team (IRT) produced this report. It reviewed the DNDO (Deomestic Nuclear Detection Office) ASP program on a host of topics and provides a valuable independent assessment of the ASP program, to inform the Secretary's decision to certify ASP systems," said the statement by Laura Keehner at DHS. "To streamline the process, the department is coupling the certification decision with the larger production and deployment decision. Some might call this a delay, but we believe that we are being responsible stewards of the taxpayer's money. Before purchasing ASPs, we will demonstrate significant improvement in operational effectiveness that meet the needs of our frontline inspection officers," Keehner said.
In the meantime, many experts, including Thomas Cochran and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council, believe that a crude nuclear device smuggled into the country poses the greatest risk of mass casualties by terrorists.
Cochran and McKinzie write in this month's "Scientific American" that their analysis shows that the new radiation devices are not dependable and call the move to deploy them at our nation's ports "ill-advised."
The gaps in the nation's current border detection have been well-documented. In 2006, federal investigators were able to smuggle enough cesium-137 into the country to create two dirty bombs, according to a government report.
In 2002, and again in 2003, ABC News was able to ship 15 pounds of depleted uranium into the country without any detection.
Even with the proposed new advanced technology, much of the responsibility to detect nuclear smugglers rests with the border inspectors themselves. In a 2006 government test, radiation detection alarms actually went off, but the undercover investigators used counterfeit documents, which said they were licensed to carry the material, to successfully get the material past border inspectors and into the country.