Security at container ports in the United States has been a major concern since the terrorist attacks in 2001. Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress increased funding for port security and placed an emphasis on testing all cargo for radiological material. As a deadline for implementing that testing at all U.S. ports nears, VOA's Kane Farabaugh visited one testing site in New York City.
They come and go by the thousands each day -- millions each year around New York City.
Steel containers – brought by ship from every corner of the world. They hold the goods that help drive the world economy.
But the head of the Department of Homeland Security's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Vayl Oxford, knows the danger that can lurk behind each container door. "We're working everyday to deal with this problem," he says.
The problem facing Oxford cannot be seen by the naked eye, and it has no odor: radiological material that can fuel a so-called dirty bomb or worse.
Ninety-five percent of U.S. trade is handled at ports similar to this one on New York's Staten Island. But only five percent of the containers here are visually inspected.
So in some ways, the front line defense against a nuclear attack is between two trucking lanes. Here, the next generation of nuclear detection is proving its value.
"What you see behind us is a combination of systems,” explains Oxford. “The systems that are closest to us in the camera view are existing operation systems that when a truck carrying any kind of radioactive material comes through it, detects the presence of that radiation, but cannot do anything to identify what may be causing that radiation. The other systems, the other three systems, are new systems that are designed to be able to actually identify what that material is as opposed to just its presence."
Increased security immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not focus on shipping, but instead on the aviation industry.
That changed dramatically in 2006 when lawmakers opposed a deal to grant control of six U.S. ports to a Middle East based company, Dubai Ports World. Under scrutiny, Dubai Ports World backed out of the arrangement.
But the furor over the ports deal generated bipartisan support for increased port security measures. Later that year, lawmakers passed a Port Security Bill, earmarking more than $7 billion over five years to the effort.
Part of that legislation requires advanced radiation detectors at the New York Container Terminal to be operational at all seaports by September of this year.
"Right now as we look around the country,” says Oxford, “we're scanning 91 percent of all containers coming across our northern border, 96 percent across our southern border. And right now 90 percent of all maritime containerized cargo like you see here today are being scanned through these kind of detection systems."
Those sound like good numbers, but Oxford says the goal for the Department of Homeland Security is 100 percent testing of all containers.
One objective of installing these advanced detectors at ports like this one on Staten Island is to see if installing them nationwide is feasible, both physically and financially. Any slowdown here puts businesses in jeopardy and could cost them millions of dollars. Oxford says he gauges success by how well the detection practices keep business running, and America safe.
"This isn't the only problem we're dealing with, however, cause we're also dealing with other avenues the threat might take. So what you don't see here today is the work we're doing with the Coast Guard, the work we're doing with the Border Patrol. And in some cases working with major metropolitan areas to give them similar kinds of capabilities so we end up with a layer defensive strategy not just one that's based on seaport defense."
Part of that "layer-defensive strategy" is the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's Container Security Initiative. It is a plan that involves dozens of international ports outside the United States pre-screening cargo before it even reaches container terminals like this one in New York -- when it might be already too late to stop a radiological attack.