But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.
Instead, the DHS relies on intelligence-gathering and analysis to identify “high-risk” containers, which are checked before being loaded onto ships. Under this system, fewer than half a percent of the roughly 10 million containers arriving at U.S. ports last year were scanned before departure. The DHS says that those checks turned up narcotics and other contraband but that there have been no public reports of smuggled nuclear material.
In response to the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed a law in 2007 specifying that no cargo container may enter the United States before being scanned with imaging equipment and a radiation-detection device.
The administration’s failure to meet the deadline has left some members of Congress and outside experts concerned about whether the threat is being taken seriously enough.
“I personally do not believe they intend to comply with the law,” Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), co-author of the 2007 law, said in an interview. “This is a real terrorist threat, and it has a solution. We can’t afford to wait until a catastrophic attack.”
The DHS says monitors scan 99 percent of the containers for radiation after they arrive at U.S. ports. But experts say the monitors at U.S. ports are not sophisticated enough to detect nuclear devices or highly enriched uranium, which emit low levels of radiation.
The Government Accountability Office has warned that a nuclear device could be detonated while at a port — containers often sit for days awaiting radiation checks — causing billions of dollars in damage in addition to the loss of life. Estimates of damage caused by a nuclear detonation at a major port range from tens of billions of dollars to $1 trillion.
Shipping containers are potentially ideal for smuggling weapons, people and other illicit cargo; ensuring the integrity of the contents is difficult and costly. The standard container is 40 feet long and 8 feet high and holds more than 30 tons of cargo. A large vessel carries 3,000 or more containers from hundreds of different shippers and many ports. And a single container can hold cargo from many customers.
Counterterrorism experts have worried about port vulnerability since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, reportedly told interrogators he had considered sending explosives to the United States hidden inside a shipment of personal computers from Japan.