Mismanagement At Nevada Radiation Test Site

After $30 million in taxpayer spending, work on a government project developing high-tech sensors to detect radiation at ports or border crossings is mired in mismanagement with no clear way forward, a federal audit said Monday.

The project, slated for completion last February, is being built at the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site, a huge outdoor testing facility in the Nevada desert.

It is 68 percent done.

No work has been done on it since August 2006, after the money ran out.

The Homeland Security Department's original price tag for the project was $33 million.

As much as $10.5 million more is needed to finish the job, said the audit by the Energy Department's inspector general.

"Even if an effective fix is implemented, completion of the project will have been significantly delayed and the cost will have substantially exceeded original estimates," the audit said.

"More importantly, the delay may impact the nation's testing capability to detect nuclear and radioactive materials in a variety of circumstances," it said.

At issue is a project called the Radiological/Nuclear Countermeasures Test and Evaluation Complex, which is supposed to develop next-generation sensors to detect radioactive or nuclear materials.

The devices would one day be used to keep weapons from entering the country at airports or seaports.

Under an interagency agreement, the Homeland Security Department is handling the project with the Nevada Site Office of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Auditors found poor coordination between NNSA's Nevada Site Office and Homeland Security.

The agencies did not formally define their respective responsibilities until May 2006, more than two years after the original contractor, Bechtel Nevada, started work on the project.

The degree of miscommunication was so great that Nevada Site Office officials told auditors that Homeland Security was managing the project - while Homeland Security officials claimed Nevada Site Office personnel wouldn't let them talk to Bechtel.

The report also criticized oversight of Bechtel.

The company didn't stay on schedule, but the Nevada Site Office accepted Bechtel's assurances despite signs of problems.

In July of last year Bechtel was replaced as the contractor by National Security Technologies LLC, and since then project managers have performed several reviews and identified weaknesses, the audit said in its one note of praise.

In a written response, Michael C. Kane, the NNSA's associate administrator for management and administration, said NNSA agreed with the report and would work to improve matters.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department didn't immediately return a call for comment, and Bechtel spokeswoman Brenda Thompson said the company was reviewing the audit.