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

By Holly Gilbert

Dr. Stephen E. Flynn speaks at the American Security Project's panel, "Nuclear Terrorism - What's at Stake?"
Dr. Stephen E. Flynn speaks at the American Security Project panel, "Nuclear Terrorism: What's at Stake?"

The threat of harmful nuclear material entering the United States through the nation’s ports is a very real one, but international cooperation and technological solutions can help better secure our waterways against that threat. That was the subject of a panel discussion titled “Nuclear Terrorism: What’s at Stake?” hosted by the American Security Project in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

Dr. Stephen Flynn, a professor at Northeastern University and former president of the Center for National Policy, said that smuggling through shipping containers is already happening on a daily basis, which demonstrates the possibility of a nuclear device, planted by terrorists, to go undetected. “You name the contraband, and it is [already] flowing through the system, whether it's knockoff products on the low end, to the movement of large sums of cash, to narcotics, to every form of weapons short of nuclear weapons, in terms of what we’ve found there,” he said. “The bottom line is the system remains highly vulnerable for folks to move things because it’s essentially an honor system, and it’s an honor system of enormous size.”

The enormity of that so-called “honor system” has only grown over the years. In 2003, the world's ports moved 300 million TDU’s, the metric unit used for weighing containerized cargo. In 2006, 400 million TDU’s were moved; last year, that number was 580 million TDU’s.

Because of the large number of containers that go through ports, the system is set up to allow companies to earn trusted status and have their containers go through on an expedited basis. Flynn said he was convinced that if and when nuclear material enters the U.S. through a port, “it will come through a trusted shipper....” because those containers go through less scrutiny.


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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