Frank McDonough, New York Shipping Association president, said ports must deploy electronic cargo tracking, advanced locator,
fail-safe sensors, and security systems that "let authorities know ahead of time that what’s on those ships."
Several new technologies have emerged to help.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags can potentially track anything that moves by enabling wireless communication
between encoded tags on containers and grids of transponders planted on the ground.
The real-time data these systems automatically capture is integrated into a global software network providing immediate
information on the location and status of containers and their contents.
Several companies produce scanning machines capable of peering through metal container walls to verify contents match the
manifest by directing x-rays or gamma-rays at the target, then displaying images on a monitor.
Since major seaports and border crossings currently inspect only 5 to 10 percent of all containers, x-ray technologies
offer a way to achieve 100 percent inspection rates. A container hauled through a stationary x-ray apparatus can examine the
contents in less than a minute.
Though expensive (some scanners run as high as $1.4 million), even the most costly quickly pay for themselves. Global container
fraud in 2000 alone was estimated at $170 billion. In Rotterdam, a scanner in place since 1999 has discovered 850 irregularities
and 110 cases of Customs fraud. Seven scanners in the UK led to the discovery of 2.3 tons of drugs, 4.8 tons of contaband
tobacco, and 160 illegal immigrants just in 2002.
Two technologies can determine the molecular signature of container contents. Vapor sensors collect air samples from inside
the container, which are then analyzed spectrographically to indicate molecular presence.
Trace sensors collect particulate matter wiped from the container surface, which are then similarly analyzed.
Ultrasound is used to determine container integrity by placing a transducer in contact with the container, which detects
the resulting reflection from objects inside, forming an image. The technology is useful only on tankers, however.
Miniature Nuclear Detector
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has a cutting edge technology. Researchers there are testing a miniature nuclear
detection system that can be installed at ports, border crossing, tollbooths, nd airports to scan containers, vehicles, or
luggage for nuclear signatures specifically associated with materials used to assemble nuclear weapons.
The device can determine various radiation energies, thus identifying radionuclides. The system can be tuned to flag only
suspect signatures, eliminating false-positives from ‘normal’ nuclear signatures like medical isotopes and radiography
equipment. Being able to distinguish benevolent from malevolent sources can save effort and frustration.
In September, 2002, for instance, the Coast Guard ordered the Liberian-flagged container ship Palermo Senator to
disembark from Port Elizabeth, NJ, to a safe security zone when trace amounts of radiation was detected in her cargo, only
to discover several days later the radioactive source was a natural occurring material found in the clay used to make floor
PPPL’s portable nuclear detection unit may answer the need for rapid reaction response teams that can quickly clear
suspect ships or cargo.