Nuclear Detection Program Getting the Axe?

A long-troubled technology initiative to prevent illicit nuclear materials from being smuggled into the United States appears to be in danger, if the Administration's 2010 budget is any indication.

The Administration has requested $366 million for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), whose job is to develop and deploy technologies to tackle the threat of a radiological attack on the United States. That figure is $148 million less than—and about 75% of—the amount DNDO received in 2009. The reason for the drop is that DNDO is not seeking any money in 2010 for the acquisition of detection technologies. (By contrast, DNDO got $153 million for acquisition in 2009.)

A likely factor is the problem that DNDO has run into with its Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) program, which was started in 2004 to screen cargo at land and sea borders for signatures of nuclear material. Although DNDO officials claimed that the prototypes of detectors developed under the program had proved to be effective, the Government Accountability Office found last year that the tests used by DNDO to evaluate the machines were flawed. Congress then forced DNDO to slow down its plans to deploy the technology, which is now undergoing a new round of tests. Results are expected later this year.

Does the zeroing out of DNDO’s acquisition account for 2010 imply the demise of the ASP program? No, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials say. “A sizable portion of the acquisition money for 2009” is yet to be spent, hence it was “fiscally prudent” not to ask for more, Amy Kudwa, a DHS spoksesperson told ScienceInsider. The unspent funds would be used to purchase ASPs—should they be certified as effective—as well as other detection equipment in the future.

Elsewhere in the DHS budget, funding for academic research remains flat. President Obama has requested $46 million for university-based research—a slight increase over last year’s $39 million request and less than the $50 million the program got in 2009. The overall budget request for the science and technology directorate is $968 million, up 4% from the $932 million appropriated for 2009.