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US Unveils New High Tech Seaport Equipment to Combat Terrorism - 2004-03-22

The top U.S. Customs official on Monday unveiled new high-tech equipment that will be used at the nation's seaports in the fight against terrorism.

Highly sophisticated radiation monitors will be installed at every seaport in the United States. The sensitive detection equipment is designed to prevent terrorists from smuggling radioactive material, in the form of dirty bombs or nuclear weapons, into the country.

The Port of New York and New Jersey, one of the nation's busiest seaports, will be equipped with the monitors by the end of August, making it one of the first to have them.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said it will cost $1 million to install and operate each monitor. He said it's a major step in securing America. "There's no more important task for the Department of Homeland Security and of Customs and Border Protection than keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of our country. And there is no more important weapons that we want to keep out of our country than nuclear and radiological weapons," he said.

The new monitors screen every container that arrives by ship for radiation emissions. Customs inspectors also utilize large-scale x-ray type machines that are able to scan an entire sea container in two-to-three minutes. Special radiation identifiers can pinpoint the source and nature of radiation, and are accurate enough to detect radioactive material masked in heavy lead.

Customs Commissioner Bonner said the installation of the monitors is the latest in a series of steps around the country to protect U.S. ports of entry. "Because of the catastrophic consequences of the al-Qaida and al-Qaida-associated groups getting that kind of weapon into our country, we don't want to take any chances. We want to have the maximum kind of protection that we can to protect against that kind of terrorist weapon entering into our country," he said.

There are already more than 300 hand-held radiation monitors being used at U.S. seaports and land border crossings. In February, New York's Kennedy airport began using a radiation scanner for incoming cargo.

Customs Inspector Michael Hegler said the most worrisome radioactive materials are Plutonium and Uranium 235, used for making of nuclear weapons. "Most radiation is naturally occurring. Bananas have radiation, ceramic tiles, toilet bowls, porcelain-ware. All have natural radiation. We are looking for Uranium 235 or Plutonium, which we feel can make a dirty bomb and would be a component of that bomb that is being brought into the country," he said.

Inspector Hegler said customs officials have a tremendous amount of sophisticated technology at their disposal. "The old fashioned days of us going out to containers and opening doors and just looking are not done any more," he said.

Officials say 1.2 million containers enter the United States every year through the Port of New York and New Jersey.