Two If By Sea
Marriage Peril

by Douglas Page, 2003

While America debated issues like new missile-intercept technologies, few noticed her maritime front door was open. Now, after Sept 11, new technologies are emerging to close gaps in port security.

"Weapons of mass destruction targeting the U.S. are more likely to arrive in freight containers than via ICBMs", says Capt. Jon Helmick, a Merchant Marine Academy expert on the post-Sept. 11 port security risks.

"Perhaps no sector is more woefully under-protected than ports and the intermodal freight transportation systems to which they are connected," he said

Over 11 million shipping containers enter U.S. ports annually. Other than physically opening each container, there's no way to tell whether what’s inside are weed whackers or weapons of mass destruction.

Smuggling of illicit drugs, counterfeit fashion wear, or endangered animal products do not begin to approach the potential effects of nuclear weapon detonation, biological agent dispersal, or chemical attack utilizing cargo containers as vehicles, Helmick said.

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.

Electronic Seals

Electronic seals combine RFID tags, optical seals, and, at least in one product, GPS receivers. Once a container is locked, the tag records any opening of the optical seal and notes the location via GPS. When containers clear Customs, receivers reading tag data can detect any tampering.

X-Ray and Gamma-Ray Detectors

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.

Vapor/Trace Detection

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 tiles.

PPPL’s portable nuclear detection unit may answer the need for rapid reaction response teams that can quickly clear suspect ships or cargo.

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Comments? Questions? Purchase Orders? douglaspage@earthlink.net
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