Terrorism and Drug Trafficking

Testing Status and Views on Operational Viability of Pulsed Fast Neutron Analysis Technology Gao ID: GGD-99-54 April 13, 1999

In recent years, the federal government has spent considerable sums to develop technologies capable of detecting explosives and narcotics. Along with X-ray and other nonintrusive inspection systems, one type of technology under development is a pulsed fast neutron analysis inspection system, which is designed to automatically detect and measure the presence of specific substances, such as cocaine, by exposing their constituent chemical elements to short bursts of subatomic particles called neutrons. This report discusses (1) the status of plans for field testing a pulsed fast neutron analysis inspection system for counterterrorism and counterdrug purposes and (2) the views of federal agencies and vendors on the operational viability of such a system.

GAO noted that: (1) the Customs Service, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Ancore Corporation recently began planning to field test PFNA; (2) because they are in the early stage of planning, they do not expect the actual field test to begin until mid to late 1999 at the earliest; (3) generally, agency and vendor officials estimate that a field test covering Customs' and DOD's requirements will cost at least $5 million and that the cost could reach $8 million if FAA's requirements are included in the joint test; (4) Customs officials told GAO they are working closely with applicable congressional committees and subcommittees to decide whether Customs can help fund the field test, given that Senate Report 105-251 directs the Commissioner of Customs to enter into negotiations with the private sector to conduct a field test of PFNA technology at no cost to the federal government; (5) generally, a complete field test would include: (a) preparing a test site and constructing an appropriate facility; (b) making any needed modifications to the only existing PFNA system and its components; (c) disassembling, shipping and reassembling the system at the test site; and (d) conducting an operational test for about 4 months; (6) according to agency and Ancore officials, test site candidates are two seaports in California (Long Beach and Oakland) and two land ports in El Paso, Texas; (7) federal agency and vendor views on the operational viability of PFNA vary; (8) while Customs, DOD, and FAA officials acknowledge that laboratory testing has proven the technical feasibility of PFNA, they told GAO that the current Ancore inspection system would not meet their operational requirements; (9) among other concerns, Customs, DOD, and FAA officials said that a PFNA system not only is too expensive (about $10 million to acquire per system) but also is too large for operational use in most ports of entry or other sites; (10) accordingly, these agencies question the value of further testing; (11) Ancore disputes these arguments, believes it can produce an operationally cost-effective system, and is proposing that a PFNA system be tested at a port of entry; and (12) the Office of National Drug Control Policy has characterized neutron interrogation as an emerging or future technology that has shown promise in laboratory testing, and, thus, warrants field testing to provide a more informed basis for deciding if PFNA has operational merit.

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