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Shipping Containers at Security Fore

Terrorism: The U.S. hopes to improve tracking of the boxes--easily capable of hiding huge bombs-- and to hinder tampering.

April 20, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid warnings that another terrorist strike might come tucked inside one of the 17,000 cargo containers that enter the United States each day, researchers are scrambling to make the nondescript metal boxes--and their modes of delivery--tamper-proof.

Industry leaders and federal authorities are particularly concerned that such an attack could prompt the closure of ports, disrupting supply chain flows and imperiling the national economy, according to a white paper about the problem prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"For right now, securing our freight supply lines is a priority of the United States, one being tackled at the highest levels of government," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Tony Regalbuto, acting director of port security nationwide. "If someone were trying to export a dirty nuclear bomb, for example, a shipping container might be a way to do it."

The U.S. Customs Service currently is able to inspect only 2% of the 7 million 20- to 40-foot-long containers that arrive each year loaded with goods ranging from rugs and frozen squid to athletic shoes and sports cars.

"Shut down all ports and you damage world trade, crippling 27% of the economy, throwing people out of work and turning the stock market into a demolition derby," said Michael Wolfe, a transportation technologies and security expert and the author of the paper.

"Shut them down for two months," Wolfe said, "and you've handed terrorists a multi-trillion-dollar victory."

With federal homeland security authorities predicting that another terrorist attack is all but certain, scientists from Silicon Valley to New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory are trying to develop comprehensive freight shipment systems similar to those now used to move high-tech military equipment and nuclear materials.

The goal is to acquire the ability to ensure ironclad security, tracking and information profiles of each container--from its point of origin to its final destination, without choking off commerce.

"There are vulnerabilities and opportunities for terrorism galore in this country," Regalbuto said.

Preventing a "bomb in a box" is only one of the aims of the proposed systems to be discussed at a three-day national conference at the Long Beach Convention Center beginning April 27.

Most proposed security measures involve an array of high-tech electronic seals, tags and transponders installed in the frames of the containers. Studded with the latest wireless communication devices, such containers would use satellites to signal from ships more than 100 miles out at sea that "I'm secure" or "I'm not OK."

In the event of bad news, a freighter could be diverted to a military port or ordered to stay put until its load could be inspected at sea, Coast Guard officials said.

Savi Technology, of Sunnyvale, Calif., which provides asset management and security systems for the Defense Department, later this year plans to launch a pilot demonstration in Singapore of a sealing and anti-tamper system for ocean and air cargo containers.

"As many as 28 parties around the world may be involved with each shipping container," said Lance Trebesch, Savi vice president of transportation security and productivity. "It is absolutely necessary to know what's in them, as well as to know its manufacturers, shippers, financial backers and brokers."

The most closely watched cargo container in history will likely be one packed with light bulbs and dispatched later this month from a factory in Nove Zamky, Slovakia, to Hillsborough, N.H., as part of a $200,000 experiment called Operation Safe Commerce.

The container's progress--by truck from Nove Zamky to the Port of Hamburg, Germany; by ship to Montreal; then by truck to an Osram Sylvania plant in Hillsborough--will be scrutinized by a group of top federal transportation, safety and law enforcement authorities and corporate officials.

The container's seals will be repeatedly verified and its contents cross-checked with cargo manifests. At one or more points, "control groups" may try to break into the box without being detected, officials said.

"We hope to learn a lot about what works and what doesn't in terms of securing containers," Regalbuto said, "and about the strengths and weaknesses in supply chains."

Created in the 1950s to streamline cargo handling and reduce pilferage in ports, cargo containers account for 90% of the world's traded cargo by value. They support supply chains that are complex, fragile and driven by firms operating on thin profit margins.

They were designed for efficiency and profit, not for security.

The nation's marine transportation system handles more than 2 billion tons of freight, 3 billion tons of oil and 7 million containers every year. It is linked to surface transportation systems by "intermodal connectors"--terminals, highways, railways and pipelines--used by the 11 million truck and rail containers that cross the Mexican and Canadian borders into the United States each year.

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