Image: L.A. port
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
A patrol boat guards the Port of Los Angeles in July. A new law sets a five-year deadline for inspecting 100 percent of U.S.-bound ships, but acknowledges the technology may not be ready to do so.
updated 8/23/2007 6:40:03 PM ET 2007-08-23T22:40:03

The specter of a nuclear bomb, hidden in a cargo container, detonating in an American port has prompted Congress to require 100 percent screening of U.S.-bound ships at their more than 600 foreign starting points.

The White House and shippers maintain that the technology for scanning 11 million containers each year doesn’t exist, and say the requirement could disrupt trade. Current procedures including manifest inspections at foreign ports and radiation monitoring in U.S. ports are working well, they contend.

Nonetheless, President Bush earlier this month signed the measure into law, praising its shift of funds to states and cities at higher risk of terrorism attack and saying he will work with lawmakers to ensure the cargo screening provisions don’t impede commerce.

Scanning containers at their point of origin in other countries is a highlight of that law, intended to fulfill recommendations of the 9/11 Commission for safeguarding the United States from terrorist attack. It sets a five-year deadline for having the system in place but — recognizing the technology might not be ready — gives the Homeland Security secretary the authority to extend that deadline by two-year increments.

“If a terrorist manages to conceal a weapon of mass destruction in a shipping container, it must be discovered long before that container reaches our shore,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in support of the measure.

Reward higher than cost, Democrat argues
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a chief proponent, said the costs and complexity involved in the new system pale beside the devastating effect of a nuclear attack launched from a big city port. “The truth is, we cannot afford not to do it.”

The White House issued a statement strongly opposing the scanning requirement, saying it was “neither executable nor feasible.” Opponents warned that it could cause huge backlogs at the nation’s seaports, which handle some 95 percent of goods coming into the country.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says “it would be wonderful” if all containers were inspected before they left foreign ports. “But it’s got to be done in a way that reflects reality and also reflects the fact that we’re not the only players in this pool.”

Industry groups that lobbied against the 100 percent screening asked whether Congress intends to cut off trade with small-volume ports that can’t install the needed technology. They also warn of foreign governments retaliating by requiring U.S. ports to set up the same inspection regimen.

“You have to have the permission of all these foreign points,” said James Carafano, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “There are a lot of people around the world who are going to be really teed off about this.”

White House approach
The Bush administration argues that its current risk-based, layered approach to port security is a success. That approach has several main components:

  • Under the Container Security Initiative, teams from Customs and Border Protection now review manifests at some 50 ports covering more than 80 percent of the container cargo shipped to the United States. Containers identified as high risk are subjected to X-ray and radiation scanning. Markey argues that this is nothing more than a paperwork check that relies on descriptions of content supplied by shippers. Less than 5 percent of containers get scanned, and only a fraction of those are opened up and inspected.
  • Homeland Security, together with Customs and Border Protection, has set a goal of screening, by the end of 2007, close to 100 percent of all containers entering the country by sea for radiological and nuclear material, using what are called Radiation Portal Monitors.
  • Under a pilot program called the Secure Freight Initiative, created in a port security bill passed last year, Homeland Security is testing high-volume scanning at six ports in Pakistan, Honduras, Britain, Oman, Singapore and South Korea.

The program should give some indication of the practicality of the 9/11 Act provision, which requires containers to undergo both a radiation check and a scan with nonintrusive imaging such as X-rays that might locate highly enriched uranium or other materials that don’t emit a lot of radiation.

Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office also plans to award up to $1.2 billion over the next five years to develop and acquire a next generation radiation monitor for land and sea cargo known as Advanced Spectroscopic Portals.

Some believe request possible
Lawmakers have questioned whether the new technology offers much improvement over current monitors that are prone to false alarms set off by naturally occurring radioactive material in medical isotopes, ceramics or kitty litter.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairmen of the Senate and House Homeland Security committees, said preliminary tests indicate the effectiveness of the new advanced monitors “may fall well short of levels anticipated.”

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a critic of the new provision, noted that those unhappy with current technology are among the same people calling for 100 percent scanning. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said, adding that “the technology is not there at this point.”

Democrats, in successfully arguing for the scanning provision, said that if the United States could put a man on the moon within the same decade that John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to that goal, it can certainly come up with effective nuclear warning technology in five years.

Markey also disputed the contention that the new system would be too expensive, citing estimates that the cost of 100 percent scanning, including the application of tamper-proof seals, would be about $100 per container. He said that’s insignificant compared with the average $66,000 value of goods shipped in each container and estimates that the cost of a disruption of U.S. port operations from a successful terrorist attack could reach $58 billion.

Steep price tag
The Congressional Budget Office quoted a figure of $1.5 billion over three years to acquire and set up the scanning and detection equipment. The United States could provide financial aid to smaller countries, but the CBO said it expected most of the costs to be borne by foreign ports in order to maintain trade with the United States.

Among opponents of the new law is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Jason Conley, its senior manager for homeland security, said there is no really good cost estimate, but predicted that the amount of money needed to implement and operate the system, deal with false alarms and handle delays and disruptions will be very high. He said foreign governments and ports would probably pass along the costs to shippers and consumers.

But cost is not the main reason that 100 percent scanning provision is opposed by major cargo shippers and America’s key trading partners, according to the World Shipping Council.

It said the new law doesn’t adequately address who will buy and maintain the equipment, who will do the scanning, how the data will be analyzed, how radiation-linked health issues will be handled and what might happen when foreign governments demand that U.S. ports install similar equipment.

Markey said the technology exists, the warnings of trade disruptions are overblown and the bottom line remains the same: If a nuclear bomb reaches a U.S. port or city, it’s already too late.

Protecting U.S. ports

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