Foreign Radiation Scans Could Speed Cargo through U.S. Ports

ELIZABETH, New Jersey_Some cargo bound for the United States could be fast-tracked through American ports after first being screened for radiation at foreign seaports, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

While American authorities already check some U.S.-bound cargo for radiation or possible nuclear weapons, a new pilot program still in the planning stages could eventually "green-lane" certain cargo containers through U.S. ports without having to be screened here a second time, Chertoff said during a visit to Port Elizabeth.

Radiation monitors already have been deployed at several Asian ports, but the new program would integrate that technology with X-ray equipment to get a complete picture of cargo containers before they left foreign ports, Chertoff said.

"This is going to be new," Chertoff said before touring the waters off Port Elizabeth on a Coast Guard patrol boat. "Where we're headed is to do as much of the scanning and screening and inspection overseas as we can do, so we can check the containers before they even arrive on our shores."

While U.S. officials inspect some cargo before it is loaded on American-bound ships from foreign ports, the main radiation scans are done at the very end of the trip, once cargo is loaded atop trucks and being driven out of seaports.

The new initiative, modeled on a pilot program begun in Hong Kong last spring, is designed to prevent a radiation threat from even making it onto a U.S.-bound ship. Chertoff said he traveled to Hong Kong earlier this year to learn more about the program.

"We thought, 'This looks promising,'" he said. "We have the technologies available and we're now working with shippers and companies and foreign ports to come up with a list of ports (where) we can start to deploy this as soon as possible.

"It may not be suitable for every foreign port, but it's certainly something that if we can deploy, it's going to create another layer of security," Chertoff said.

He did not offer a cost estimate or timeline for the program.

Initially, cargo that underwent radiation screening abroad would be screened a second time for radiation here. But Chertoff said that could change if the overseas screenings are shown to be effective.

"If we get a fully deployed and satisfactory foreign port with this kind of system, we would be able to green-lane containers coming from that screening directly into this country without putting them through a second round of screening here," Chertoff said. "I think that's one of the advantages of screening at a foreign port."

Perhaps mindful of the furor that erupted over plans to let foreign companies run operations at U.S. seaports, Chertoff also emphasized that U.S. officials would retain total control of overseas radiation screening operations.

"I want to make this 100 percent clear: Anything we do in a foreign port, the control over images, the equipment, and the decision to inspect will be 100 percent in the hands of U.S. law enforcement authorities," he said. "The one thing we will not do is enter into a program that gives the responsibility for decision-making or execution to another country."

On another topic, Chertoff also said the government plans to fine U.S. port terminal operators or shipping companies that allow cargo containers to leave a seaport before they have been fully inspected. He said releases of containers that have been flagged for further inspection are a rare occurrence, particularly in the New York-New Jersey seaport.

But the government will now have the authority to fine a terminal operator an amount equal to the value of the entire cargo inside the container. If problems with a particular operator persist, he said, the government could shut them down completely, or insist on a painstaking search of every container leaving the port, which could slow commerce there to a trickle.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 10/04/06>>