updated 6/4/2005 12:55:37 AM ET 2005-06-04T04:55:37

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will receive radiation detectors to scan every incoming cargo container for nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.

The 20-foot-high devices, already in use in at seaports in Jersey City, N.J., and elsewhere, should be at the Southern California ports by the end of the year, Chertoff said. They are part of the U.S. government’s strategy to prevent a possible attack by terrorists using nuclear or radiological weapons at the nation’s busiest port complex.

“A key element of that strategy is detection,” Chertoff said after touring the waterways surrounding the ports aboard a Coast Guard ship. “If we know this radiological material is coming in ... we can take the appropriate steps to intercept a threat.”

Millions of containers
About 4.3 million containers are shipped to the dual ports each year. The Southern California harbor will become the second major U.S. harbor to have all incoming cargo screened, Chertoff said.

In April, officials announced Oakland was the first major harbor to install enough radiation machines to check all incoming cargo. It has 25.

Trucks carrying containers unloaded from ships will pass through the detectors. If the machines find signs of radiation, containers will get another scan and possibly inspection by hand-held devices.

At a cost of about $250,000 each, the machines were funded by federal dollars and take about five seconds to screen each container, officials said.

Concern over delays
Union officials representing port workers said some cargo containers linger on the docks for hours or days — and might not be checked right away.

“We think it’s hypocritical that they don’t screen it immediately after it’s unloaded, said Miguel Lopez, port representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose union has about 500 truckers at the ports. “It puts everybody in jeopardy, not just the truckers.”

Chertoff said the process of checking containers could be optimized to reduce delays in scanning, citing officials in Baltimore who found ways to speed up the process.

He also said scanning would not slow the flow of cargo at the ports, which last year experienced delays handling a large volume of cargo from the Far East.

“Taking an extra couple minutes to promote homeland security is something the trucking industry would endorse,” said Patty Senecal, vice president of Transport Express Inc., a harbor trucking and warehouse company. “It’s a different story if trucks are delayed for hours and hours ... but we don’t expect that.”

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