This week, the Department of Homeland Security awarded contracts totaling $1.35 billion to L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., American Science & Engineering Inc. and employee-owned SAIC to screen for radioactive material in hidden cargo
The DHS program is called the Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System, or CAARS, and it is designed to deliver "an advanced imaging system that will automatically detect high density shielding that could be used to hide special nuclear material such as highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium."
Each of the companies will receive $50 million initially to develop prototypes of an advanced imaging system. Once the prototypes have been tested, DHS will determine how the remaining $1.3 billion will be awarded for the production of up to 300 units.
According to Vayl Oxford, director of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of the Department of Homeland Security:
” It might go to one or to all three companies, depending on the systems and how they might be used. This is where the real carrot is - to successfully complete the development cycle because the real incentive is to get to production.”
The new system is envisioned as a complement to advanced spectroscopic portals, or ASP, which detect and identify unshielded or lightly shielded nuclear materials. In July DHS awarded $1.16 billion worth of ASP contracts to three vendors -- Raytheon, Thermo Electron, and Canberra -- for one base year plus four annual options. The goal for the first year is to develop a fixed radiation detection portal which will become the "standard installation for screening cargo containers and truck traffic."
Officials said it will be more effective than current systems because it can identify high-density shielding - like lead or carbon-based products - used to mask nuclear materials such as uranium or weapons-grade plutonium.
Vayl Oxford said the new system is meant to be deployed along with advanced spectroscopic portals that detect and identify unshielded or lightly shielded nuclear materials. Contracts for the advanced spectroscopic portal system were announced in July, and deployment begins later this year. Oxford said that “that ASP and CAARS will together provide the United States with the ability to detect unshielded and shielded materials without slowing down commerce.”
The awards come as the Senate moves closer to voting on legislation
aimed at beefing up security at U.S.
The bill would require major U.S. ports to screen incoming cargo for nuclear materials such as "dirty bombs," devices that combine conventional explosives and radioactive material.
The bill, approved 98-0 in a pre-election push on national defense, would increase safeguards on the rail systems that pick up cargo from ports and authorize 1,000 new agents to screen containers coming off ships.
But the legislation does not go as far as some Democrats demanded in requiring inspections for all U.S.-bound cargo before it leaves foreign ports. Almost 11 million containers are shipped annually to the United States.
The plan, which authorizes spending $835 million next year, "works toward a goal of getting to 100% screening" of cargo leaving foreign ports, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of the bill's authors.
The Senate bill requires inspections of suspicious high-risk cargo at foreign ports. It also sets up a pilot program to scan for nuclear or "dirty bomb" materials in all U.S.-bound containers at three to-be-determined foreign ports. The trial would help determine if mandatory inspections would bottle up commerce and drive up costs, as Republicans fear.
The key here is the goal of screening 100% of the cargo leaving foreign ports. Often, the argument is raised that the U.S. only screens 5% of the containers entering our ports. That in itself is a hole in security. But ensuring that 100% of the containers are screened when they are loaded and shipped is a separate and equally important component of security. Of course, not discussed is ensuring that containers have not been tampered with during transit.
Further, it is important to note that James Jay Carafano, homeland security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the Senate plan largely ignores security gaps such as the threat from small boats that could detonate explosives next to larger ships, as happened in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 Americans.
Editorial Comment: There is one other comment to make. This new CAARS contract of $1.35 billion has been awarded to three of the usual suspects SAIC, American Science & Engineering and L-3 Communications. The previous ASP contract went to Raytheon, Thermo Electron, and Canberra. Earlier this week it was announced that AS&E had been awarded $42.4 million contract to deliver 36 mobile X-ray systems for detecting explosives and plastics weapons. The systems are designed to be mounted to a van, and driven by detection targets.
While there is nothing wrong with this, or with the award of the CAARS contract, a question could be asked of why smaller companies with equally viable imaging systems for radiological detection were not considered.