If the atmosphere at an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing late last month is any indication, companies that are developing new ways to stop nuclear material from crossing U.S. borders have a big problem.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, raised heated questions about whether the new technology is ready for prime time and whether the Homeland Security Department should sign off on an estimated $1.2 billion worth of contracts to buy these new radiation detectors for the nation’s ports and borders.
And within days of the hearing, both Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the committee’s chairman, and Stupak had dispatched a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “respectfully” urging him to put the program on hold because of what they called “biased” testing.
The companies that are developing the “next generation” of radiation detectors for DHS are Raytheon, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Canberra. And they have done what any smart company might do in such a situation: lobby.
While Congress’ role in the matter is limited — it’s up to Chertoff to sign off on the final contract — Stupak, Dingell and other Members have made it clear they won’t let the issue go unnoticed — or unresolved.
Thermo Fisher recently tapped Ogilvy Government Relations, and Raytheon is relying on a long list of in-house and outside lobbyists. The new Ogilvy lobbyists include Republican Wayne Berman and Democrat Moses Mercado.
Ogilvy lobbyists did not respond to a request for comment. Thermo Fisher’s vice president of corporate communications, Karen Kirkwood, said they are complying with government requests. “We’re doing everything people are asking us to do,” she said.
A Raytheon spokesman referred all comments to Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. And lobbyists for Canberra could not be reached for comment by deadline.
“After the hearing, everyone was saying ASPs are dead,” said one lobbyist following the debate. “I don’t think that’s the case. All the lobbying — that’s the reason why the program’s alive.”
The company that has the current contract to screen containers, SAIC, has a well-funded lobbying operation, too; its official lobby report for the first six months of 2007 lists $1.07 million in lobby expenses. K Street lobbyists say SAIC could gain the most if the new generation is put on hold.
The technology in question has been given the moniker “Advanced Spectroscopic Portals,” which not only detect the presence of radiological materials in cargo containers but are supposed to also identify the actual material. That’s a step up from the current technology, experts say, because one of the problems with the method now in use is that it catches goods without identifying them, such as kitty litter, which contains some radiation.
One of the biggest problems with the new technology, at least as far as Dingell and Stupak see it, is the testing of the new process. Homeland Security’s nuclear detection office provided the materials that were to be tested to the companies so they could calibrate their machines, a crucial flaw in the process, according to Dingell and Stupak. “It is highly unlikely that favorable circumstances would exist under real world conditions,” the Members said in their letter.
One person in favor of the technology contends that the tests weren’t “cooked” and that the companies did need to calibrate their machines. And he said that point must be hammered home to Members on the Hill.
“What you do right now, you don’t sit back,” said this source. “You work with your contacts on Capitol Hill, in the agency.”
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said Congress has at once pushed DHS to get this technology off the ground, while at the same time criticizing the program. He also said the testing of the new technology has to be stringent and based on science, not politics. “It’s important for us to be rigorous in our oversight of DHS,” he said in an interview with Roll Call.
A container project in New York, Lungren said, showed that using ASP technology resulted in a decrease in the number of “nuisance alarms,” when detectors find radiation but the harmless types found in porcelain toilets, fertilizer or kitty litter.
“That is extremely important. That would be very, very good news if we can validate that,” Lungren said. “If we can bring the number of nuisance alarms down, we are moving in the right direction.”
Ryan Eddy, a spokesman with the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, whose agency has come under increasing criticism from lawmakers about the testing, said the ASP technology is badly needed. The current scanners set off 400 to 600 alarms each day at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port alone. “We tested the current generation systems and again they performed just the way we thought they would, but they aren’t able to identify what they’ve seen,” he said.
As for the role of Capitol Hill, Eddy said his agency is complying with language in a fiscal 2007 bill that mandates Chertoff to certify the contracts once the technology has been tested. “We’re complying with the language that was put forth in the ’07 appropriations bill,” he said. “We are marching along those lines.”
Still, Members are making their positions known. “Nothing is more important than preventing terrorists from smuggling radioactive materials or a nuclear device into the U.S.,” Dingell and Stupak wrote in their Sept. 21 letter. “We have to be right 100 percent of the time, whereas terrorists only have to be right once.”