November 4, 2011

What's In That Container?

Ever since 9-11, there has been acute concern about preventing "the next" big attack on our nation.
Will it be a suitcase bomb, anthrax in the mail, an attack on our mass transit systems, or perhaps a nuclear device smuggled into one of our ports--all very frightening scenarios!
The last one though has been of particular fascination and concern given the amount of commerce that passes through our ports--more than 95% of our international trade--and hence the damage that could be done to our economy should these ports be hit as well as the challenges in being able adequately screen all the containers coming through--a massive undertaking.
Wired Magazine (November 2011) did a feature story on this topic in an article called "Mystery Box."
The article highlights the unbelievable damage that could occur if a dirty bomb ("a radiological dispersion device") were to get through in one of the millions of 20 foot long by 8 foot wide shipping containers out there--aside from the risk to lives, "it would result in a major national freak-out...cause billions and billions of dollars in economic damage...dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption."
While 99% of shipping containers are scanned when they arrive in the U.S., DHS is supposedly challenged in implementing a bill requiring scanning every container before they enter the U.S.--"some 66,000 [containers] a day."
Instead "100 percent screening" is being pursued where, shipping information is checked before arrival--including vessel, people, and cargo, origination, and destination--and when an anomaly or cause for concern is detected--if there is a U.S. Customs Officer at the origination port, they can check it there already.
However, there are still at least four major issues affecting our port security today:
1) Most containers are still checked only once they actually get onshore.
2) The scanners are too easily foiled--"most detectors are set to ignore low radiation levels. [And] basic shielding would be enough to mask all but the strongest sources."
3) Thoroughly scanning every container is considered too time-consuming using current processes and technology and therefore, would adversely affect our commerce and economy.
4) Around the world "Customs tends not focus on containers being transshipped [those moving from ship to ship]. Their attitude is 'It's not my container, it's just passing through.'"
This is a perfect example of technology desperately needed to address a very serious issue.
Certainly, we cannot bring our economy to a standstill either by unnecessarily checking every "widget" that comes over or by risking the catastrophic effects of a WMD attack.
So for now, we are in a catch-22, darned if we do check everything as well as if we don't.
This is where continued research and development, technological innovation, and business process reengineering must be directed--to secure our country sooner than later.
The risks are being managed best we can for now, but we must overcome the current obstacles to screening by breaking the paradigm that we are boxed into today.
(Source Photo: here)


No comments: