Scanners may not detect all nuclear weapons bound for U.S.

New GAO report says implementation of smuggling detection system faces challenges


Flaws persist in masterminding a multi-program, $2.8 billion yearly anti- smuggling detection system to block rogue nations and terrorists from mounting a nuclear attack on the United States, the Government Accountability Office stated in a report to Congress.

Scanners installed at overseas ports to check U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear weapons and materials aren't sure to find all such contraband.

The findings were contained in testimony presented to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

While the Missile Defense Agency is well along in providing a multi- layered shield against rogue states or terrorists using nuclear-tipped missiles to mount an atomic attack on U.S. cities, the other part of the equation -- to block enemies from smuggling nukes into the United States -- isn't going well, according to the GAO report.

The GAO focused on an umbrella agency that is to coordinate multi-agency efforts to block smuggling, called the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), an entity within the Department of Homeland Security. DNDO was established by a presidential directive in 2005.

The goal is to prevent rogue states or terrorists from smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States, blocking those enemies before the weapons ever get near U.S. shores. For example, screening detectors are being installed at foreign ports to scan cargo containers bound for the United States to see if they contain concealed contraband weapons, before those containers are loaded onto ships bound for U.S. ports.

On the one hand, DNDO has done well to develop a global nuclear detection architecture, but the agency lacks an overarching strategic plan to help guide how it will achieve a more comprehensive architecture, GAO found.

Agencies involved in the effort, which DNDO is supposed to coordinate, include the departments of Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), and State (State).

Specifically, DNDO has developed an initial architecture after coordinating with DOD, DOE, and State to identify 74 federal programs that combat smuggling of nuclear or radiological material.

A nuclear bomb creates an immense explosion as fissile materials reach critical mass, while a radiological or "dirty" bomb merely uses a conventional explosive to scatter radioactive materials about an area.

DNDO has identified gaps in the protective architecture, such as land border crossings into the United States between formal points of entry, small maritime vessels, and international general aviation, gaps through which enemies easily could move nuclear weapons.

DNDO and other federal agencies face a number of coordination, technological, and management challenges.

First, prior GAO reports found that U.S.-funded radiological detection programs overseas have proven problematic to implement and sustain and have not been effectively coordinated, although there have been some improvements in this area.

Second, detection technology has limitations and cannot detect and identify all radiological and nuclear materials. For example, smugglers may be able to effectively mask or shield radiological materials so that it evades detection.

Third, DNDO faces challenges in managing implementation of the architecture. DNDO has been charged with developing an architecture that depends on programs implemented by other agencies. This responsibility poses a challenge for DNDO in ensuring that individual programs within the global architecture are effectively integrated and coordinated to maximize the detection and interdiction of radiological or nuclear material.

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