Risk of Nuclear Materials Being Smuggled Through Ports Should Be Taken Seriously, Say Experts

By Holly Gilbert

Some experts argue that searching every single container that comes into U.S. ports is not feasible. That's why the approach has been risk-based. But not everyone agrees.

While 742 ports around the world sent material to the United States last year, 99.5 percent of those shipments came from just 120 ports.

“It’s frequently cited that it’s too hard to keep track of all the ports,” said Dr. Stanton D. Sloane, president and CEO of the Decision Sciences International Corporation, “but if you really dig into the numbers, that’s really not the case.” Sloane pointed to research and development as a viable way to find a one-size-fits-all solution for those ports sending the majority of materials to the States. “The answer is a technological answer,” he noted. “We need to develop new technologies and field them quickly…. We have to get to a regime that scans everything. We have to find these bad devices, and we have to do this where the bad guys are going to be clever and shield it from existing technologies.”

Because of the global nature of shipping, international cooperation is absolutely crucial to preventing the threat of a nuclear weapon being smuggled through U.S. ports, said David Waller, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and former assistant secretary of Energy for International Affairs. “Nuclear material arriving at a U.S. port in a container, in all likelihood, has arrived from elsewhere, and [was] shipped undetected from elsewhere. So that makes it very clear international cooperation is very important in securing our ports.” But, he noted, the government has not attempted to do it alone.

Panel members agreed that the nuclear threat was real. Rear admiral (retired) Jay Cohen, former Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology of the Department of Homeland Security expressed the views of many by stating: “It’s only a question of where, when, and to what magnitude.”

Flickr photo by Americansecurityproject


Smuggling Nuclear Materials

As a retired Supervisor for CBP and a person that used a scanner from 2001 until 2008 and found not one thing other than crackers in a wine shipment, glass top tables, sand filled nick-nacks and clay pots, I can tell you that scanning is not the answer.  It is ludicrous to even begin to believe that all the containers arriving into the US can be scanned.

First, your argument that the majority of containers arrive from 120 ports sounds great and simple, but what of the transshippment ports.  There are major ones like Balboa, Panama where if you google Balboa Panama and Newark Drug seizure you will find that a container was scanned when it left the Chinese port, arrived in Balboa, was off-loaded and sat on the port for 6 days, then loaded onto another ship destined for Newark, NJ.  Upon arrival in Newark, cocaine was discovered in the container and it was almost certain to have been placed in the container in Balboa. There is a scanner in Balboa but that is only for containers leaving Panama.  Ones dropped are not taken out and rescanned prior to being reloaded as it would be too costly. There were two seizures from Balboa to Newark. This is the same in Jamaica another large transshippment port.  As container ships get larger, there will be more and more transshippment ports and consequently the use of the scanner is useless. 

Then as ports become automated they are refusing to re-configure their ports to have all containers go out of the automation line to go through a scanner that the US set up through CSI and SFI ports. As more and more ports become automated this will be a larger problem. 

Next, you are the bad guy. You know the foreign ports that have scanners. So you take your container to a port that does not have a scanner. It is loaded onto a feeder ship or barge in another foreign port and then taken to the main port where it goes into the foreign freight yard and is also not scanned but loaded onto the foreign ship, much the same as a transshippment port.

Finally and most importantly who pays for all this scanning and equipment? The US Government, the tax payers as we are borrowing .42 cents on every dollar from the Chinese?

There is a much better solution and that is a container security device that can be required to be placed in every container entering the US. The technology is available now for devices which can read any tampering, it can have a sensor to read radiation, explosives and even levels of carbon dioxide in the case of human smuggling.  Scanners are extremely expensive, personnel intensive and require large areas to operate due to the exclusion zone and many unions refuse to allow their workers to run through the units which slows down the process. Container security devices are re-usable, can be monitored real time and they are not personnel intensive.  Best of all require the shipper or consignee to pay for the device and not the US government. These devices are currently being used in the middle east to track military containers going into the war zones and the process has been very successful. 

If a container security device was required to be used it would not matter what port it was exported from as if it did not have a device, it would not be allowed to be loaded on a vessel and could not enter the US. As more and more devices are made the technology will become better and cheaper.  Think in terms of the original ipod, now look at the ipod shuffle which holds 2 GB of info. That will be the case for container security devices.

We need to stop thinking small and use technology. We need to stop looking to the government to have the solution because as we have seen recently between Fast & Furious, Benghazi, IRS, etc. the government does not do so well managing operations.



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