Countering Nuclear Terrorism: How DNDO Supports Detection and Forensics

radiation portal DHS border crossing

An Interview with Dr. Huban Gowadia, Director, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Dr. Huban A. Gowadia was appointed as the Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) on 20 September 2013. Under her leadership, DNDO develops nuclear detection capabilities, measures detector system performance, ensures effective response to detection alarms, conducts transformational research and development, and coordinates the improvement of technical nuclear forensics capabilities across the U.S. Government. Prior to this role, Dr. Gowadia served at DNDO as the Acting Director from 2012 to 2013 and in several other roles since 2005. 

Before joining DNDO, Dr. Gowadia led DHS’s Science & Technology Countermeasures Test Beds as Program Executive from 2003 to 2005. She also worked for the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Aviation Administration. Dr. Gowadia received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. 

Interview by S&BP Assistant Editor George Jagels

DNDO Director Huban Gowadia DHS

S&BP: Why was the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) created, and what is DNDO’s mission?

Dr. Gowadia: At DNDO, we have a singular focus: countering nuclear terrorism. In 2005, DNDO was established through Presidential Directive within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as an interagency office to coordinate U.S. radiological and nuclear detection capabilities across the government. In 2006, we were assigned similar responsibilities for technical nuclear forensics. Let me first discuss detection. We conduct our detection coordination efforts through the global nuclear detection architecture, which is a framework for detecting, analyzing, and reporting on nuclear and other radioactive materials that are out of regulatory control. We are responsible for collaborating across the nuclear security enterprise to ensure a managed, coordinated response to potential nuclear threats. To accomplish this, DNDO invests in programs to conduct transformational research and development, measure detector performance, develop and deploy nuclear detection capabilities, and ensure effective response to detection alerts, while enhancing the capabilities of our partners. With respect to forensics, DNDO provides centralized stewardship planning and integration for federal nuclear forensics and attribution activities. We are responsible for a ready, robust, and enduring national nuclear forensics capability. I have the privilege of leading an exceptional team of professionals. Their incredible energy, passion, and work ethic are on display every day as we, together, keep a sustained focus on a very significant national security mission. DNDO has 127 federal employees and, in FY 2014, a budget of $285,255,000.

S&BP: What are some of the benefits of centralizing these functions into a single DHS office?

Dr. Gowadia: Nuclear terrorism is an enduring threat. As President Obama said in a speech in March 2012, “The danger of nuclear terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to global security.” We begin by assessing the threat environment, and take a holistic and integrated approach to address it. The DNDO team brings an incredible breadth and depth of experience to bear—systems analysts, engineers and scientists, staff with law enforcement and intelligence community backgrounds, policy analysts, and acquisition professionals. Importantly, our experiences in technology development have validated the critical need for close coordination between DNDO technology developers and testers and their operational partners, especially as concepts mature from early research into our prototypes. At DNDO, this coordination occurs constantly and seamlessly.

ARES helicopter radiation detection

A prototype gamma-ray sensor system is mounted in the white pod on a helicopter for aerial radiological detection. (DHS)

S&BP: What are some of the challenges in developing a global nuclear detection and reporting architecture? How do you work with partner nations to maximize reporting?

Dr. Gowadia: To remain one step ahead of an ever-evolving threat environment, we continually adapt our methods and strategies to ensure nuclear terrorism remains a prohibitively difficult undertaking for any actor. Our guiding principle is the critical triad of intelligence, law enforcement, and technology. Mission success is enhanced by the use of intelligence-driven searches conducted by well-trained law enforcement and public safety officers using the right technology. But developing a multi-layered, multi-faceted global nuclear detection architecture also relies on the decisions of foreign partners regarding their own national and regional detection programs. To support these efforts, DNDO collaborates with interagency partners at the Departments of Defense, State, and Energy, and through multilateral groups, such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). For example, DNDO assisted in the development of guidelines and best practices that the IAEA has used for regional training courses, helping more than 20 nations initiate planning for national level detection architectures. Our efforts abroad help bring together the international nuclear detection community and make the world and our nation more secure.

S&BP: Specifically, can you give our readers insight into the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture and some anecdotes as to how it works?

Dr. Gowadia: Global Nuclear Detection Architecture is the framework for the implementation of radiological and nuclear detection capabilities, with a number of federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, international, and private sector partners. A detection event can be in the form of information or intelligence alerts, technical detection alerts, and traditional law enforcement work. Indeed, for many partners, detection is just one of their many law enforcement and public safety duties. As an illustrative example, law enforcement officers may uncover efforts to forge radioactive material licenses in order to smuggle radioactive materials across a border. The law enforcement agency could arrange a sting operation and employ detection equipment to verify the source of the material involved, thereby leading to the seizure of material and arrest of the buyer, seller, and facilitators.

S&BP: In what ways is DNDO involved in post-event detection and classification?

Dr. Gowadia: The Departments of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence all have responsibilities for the U.S. government’s national technical nuclear forensics capabilities. The Department of Defense leads the development of post-detonation nuclear forensics, and DNDO assists in the development of requirements for this mission. Additionally, DNDO is responsible for ensuring [that] the nation’s nuclear forensics capability is ready to respond to a radiological or nuclear event—from interdiction of smuggled nuclear or other radioactive material to a terrorist detonation of a nuclear device. DNDO is able to aid in the attribution of the event with federal partners through centralized planning, assessments, exercises, and stewardship of national technical nuclear forensics programs.

S&BP: How does DNDO ensure effective domestic responses to detection alarms?

Dr. Gowadia: DNDO’s Joint Analysis Center facilitates alarm adjudication and provides situational awareness to federal, state, and local decision makers. The Joint Analysis Center Collaborative Information System provides stakeholders’ adjudication connectivity, a detector database, and information regarding the events and activities related to a detection event. In addition, we assist state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies with establishing a robust and integrated radiation detection capability. We work with partners as they develop customized concepts of operations and standard operating procedures. We also support the development of training and exercise products—from basic awareness and knowledge to tabletop exercises and full-scale exercises—which ingrain alarm response procedures into day-to-day activities.


DNDO is responsible for ensuring [that] the nation’s nuclear forensics capability is ready to respond to a radiological or nuclear event—from interdiction of smuggled nuclear or other radioactive material to a terrorist detonation of a nuclear device.


S&BP: What are some of the metrics that you use to measure DNDO’s performance?

Dr. Gowadia: We can measure performance in multiple ways, including improvements to fielded detection capabilities [and] progress towards supporting next-generation expertise. As a result of our acquisition and deployment collaborations, at our ports of entry, almost 100 percent of maritime containerized cargo and 100 percent of land border conveyances are scanned for radioactive threats by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. All Coast Guard boarding parties carry radiation detectors, and the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams use these systems every day during the course of their activities and at special events. In addition, we are expanding the Border Patrol’s nuclear detection capabilities for agents on patrol between ports of entry. Our Securing the Cities program has supported the establishment of robust capabilities in major urban areas, including the New York City and Los Angeles/Long Beach regions. We also carry out robust program assistance efforts. DNDO has engaged with 29 states to support the development of state and local detection programs, and is working on expanding these efforts to all 50 states. We are focused on the next generation of scientists in fields relevant to our mission. In 2013 alone, our Academic Research Initiative supported 140 students, and, to date, our National Nuclear Forensics Expertise Development program has placed 19 new nuclear forensics scientists at National Laboratories. We are on track to add 35 new Ph.D. scientists to the nuclear forensics field by 2018.

S&BP: What kinds of equipment does DNDO procure? Is this often used by your personnel, or do you procure equipment for other organizations?

Dr. Gowadia: At DNDO, we develop, procure, and deploy both large- and small-scale radiation detection equipment, predominantly for use by our DHS operational components—CBP, the Coast Guard, and the TSA. Large-scale equipment includes fixed, transportable, and mobile radiation detectors, like those used by CBP officers to scan incoming cargo and conveyances at ports of entry. Small-scale equipment includes portable radiation detectors, some of which are hand-held or may be worn by law enforcement officers. These sensors include personal radiation detectors,  sometimes called “pagers,” radiation isotope identification devices, and radiation detection backpacks.

S&BP: How does DNDO enable other agencies to make more informed radiological/nuclear procurement decisions?

Dr. Gowadia: DNDO assists federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial operational partners make informed procurement decisions of radiation detection systems through several mechanisms. First, we partner with experienced equipment users, industry, scientists, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards that establish the minimum performance requirements for such systems. Then we plan and execute rigorous test and evaluation campaigns to test sensors against standards and in relevant operational scenarios with a variety of sources to include special nuclear material. These campaigns provide information regarding technical performance, operational effectiveness, and system limitations to help our partners select the right equipment and develop the right concepts of operation to meet unique mission requirements. DNDO also has in place a test and evaluation program through which the private sector may submit their products for independent testing.

S&BP: Are there emerging technologies for radiation and nuclear detection that you are particularly excited about?

Dr. Gowadia: DNDO’s transformational research and development efforts transition ideas to laboratory prototypes and from laboratory prototypes to commercially available products. DNDO has developed and worked with industry to commercialize several breakthrough sensing materials with enhanced detection characteristics for gamma-rays and neutrons. Some materials can sense both types of radiation simultaneously. Others focus on neutron detection without requiring the rare isotope Helium-3 that is traditionally used for neutron detection. Some of the most interesting work DNDO supports is improving instrument algorithms and analyses. We are developing advanced algorithms that can distinguish between naturally occurring background radiation or benign sources  from threat materials in urban and cluttered environments, thereby greatly reducing the number of nuisance alarms from fielded systems and minimizing operational costs. Finally, new technologies for the detection of shielded special nuclear material—which is one of our toughest technical challenges—continue to show promise. We are also developing software to automatically detect special nuclear material and shielding material in radiography images. Together, these successes contribute to core technologies that will support a range of future capabilities.

S&BP: Before joining DNDO, you led DHS’s Science & Technology Countermeasures Test Beds program and were the Checkpoint Program Manager in the Office of Security Technologies at TSA. How have these experiences shaped your perspective as DNDO Director?

Dr. Gowadia: As a checkpoint program manager, I had a front row seat on 9/11, and it remains the most impactful event of my professional life. Through it all, I witnessed leadership in a crisis; every day, I try to emulate the best leaders I saw in action. First and foremost, I’ve learned the importance of focusing on and staying closely tied to end users and operators. Their unique insights and understanding of the operational environment are critical to building relevant and effective capabilities. [Second], in every assignment, I have been fortunate to be a part of truly exceptional teams. It is a privilege to learn from some of the smartest scientists and engineers in the world [as well as] from courageous law enforcement and public safety officials. And finally, I have developed a deep appreciation for the privilege of federal service in the homeland security mission. I am blessed to have what Teddy Roosevelt called the “best prize in life…the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Top photo caption: A truck is scanned through a radiation portal monitor. (DHS)

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of CST & CBRNE Source Book and Security & Border Protection magazine.