Nuclear Port Security

The goal of transportation systems in general is to facilitate the movement of people and goods from place to place quickly, safely, and inexpensively. However, because it is often not possible to meet all three of those goals simultaneously, transportation engineers are forced to choose some imperfect, but realistic, combination of those ideals. Securing our nation’s ports from potential nuclear threats is a prime example of a goal that forces transportation engineers, politicians, and others to choose between safety and efficiency.

Since the attacks of September 11th, national security has been an especially important issue in the United States. The federal government quickly took measures to decrease the chances of another major terrorist attack from occurring on US soil. While much attention is given to those measures that directly impact the public, such as airline security checks, other less obvious measures are equally important.

Nuclear Port Security is a major issue for many reasons, including the following:

1.)    Nuclear weapons can only be detonated in the US if they are created here or transported here. If we assume that creating or obtaining a nuclear device is easier outside of the US than within it, and that a missile or other military-style delivery system is beyond the technical capabilities of most terrorist groups (both somewhat questionable assumptions), they it appears that smuggling a nuclear weapon into the US is perhaps the easiest way to get such a device on US soil.

2.)    Nuclear “Dirty Bombs” provide a low-tech method for radiation dispersal, while highly-enriched Uranium weapons emit only low levels of radiation prior to detonation that are difficult to detect by many scanners.

3.)    Sea- and river-ports process huge amounts of cargo every day, increasing the chances that the “needle” may never be found in the “haystack.”

4.)    Air traffic is very closely monitored, making smuggling radioactive material by air a risky possibility.

5.)    Cargo ships are massive and carry goods from many different companies and points of origin to just as many places. This vast complexity and great scale make it difficult for all transported items to be fully checked and monitored.

6.)    Each shipping crate is capable of carrying large amounts of materials and can be unloaded from a ship directly to a truck without any form of visual or other inspection of its contents.

7.)    Ports are extremely important to the world market, and are often located in, or very close to, major cities. A nuclear detonation at a port could cause great loss of life as well as major monetary losses. According to the Washington Post, “Estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” The destruction of a major port would cause tremendous financial and cultural turmoil. Global trade would suffer, and many jobs would be lost. Suspicion or tension between countries would result in even greater consequences.

Clearly, the protection of its sea- and river- ports should be a major priority for the US. However, there are major obstacles to such security. Financial concerns, delays in shipments due to extended processing time, privacy and intellectual property concerns, and poorly organized oversight of the cargo monitoring process have all plagued attempts to institute an all-encompassing scanning methodology at US ports.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring that all cargo containers entering the US must be screened for radiation at foreign ports. In an effort to achieve this goal, the US has helped over twenty nations to install cargo scanning equipment in their ports, largely through the Megaports Initiative of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This initiative, begun in fiscal year 2003, seeks to expand this success to 100 seaports by 2015. Despite the success of this initiative, reported the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland Security failed to meet the July 2012 deadline for 100% foreign-based scanning set forth by Congress, instead “extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome.” In a report to Congress, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano “said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.” The current cargo scanning system used by the Customs and Border Protection agency uses intelligence-based analysis to target “high-risk” cargo for inspection.

Although much of the cargo imported into the US is not yet scanned in foreign ports, nearly all of it is scanned after it reached US ports. However, concerns have been raised regarding the effectiveness of the scanning equipment used for this application. In addition, a 2013 report by the DHS Office of Inspector General revealed poor coordination between Customs and Border Protection and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office that has allegedly resulted in poor scanning and tracking methods.

When looking at an issue such as nuclear port security, it is often very difficult to see a clear solution. The many available courses of action each provide their own set of benefits and drawbacks, even when looking at only a small aspect of the problem. For example, looking at the issue of nuclear port security from an economic perspective provides little useful directives. On the one hand, according to the Washington Post, “estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.” On the other hand is the reality of the current system exemplified by failed attempts to address the issue, as shown by a simple look at the news: “Pilot programs established to scan all containers [in foreign ports] were abandoned in 2009 after the agency said costs were too high and the effort led to cargo delays and logistical problems.”

Transportation engineers, politicians, businessmen, and the public must also weigh the daily logistical nightmare of in-port radiation scanning against the chances of the logistical hell of a nuclear detonation in-port.

Will things ever change? It’s unclear. The optimist will point to new scanning technology that will revolutionize the scanning process, while the pessimist will point to increased government bureaucracy that will only make the system more costly and inefficient. However, some things are certain: as long as nuclear threats exist, the issue of port security will be an important (and likely costly) one.





295 thoughts on “Nuclear Port Security

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