As the nation's busiest port complex prepares to install devices designed to thwart the smuggling of nuclear material into Southern California, there are concerns that the super-sensitive radiation detectors could increase delays at the already crowded ports.
When used at other U.S. points of entry, the finely tuned monitors have flagged shipping containers carrying TV sets, ceramic tiles, bananas and even kitty litter. Such a high level of sensitivity, customs officials say, is necessary to help deter terrorists bent on sneaking a radiological weapon into the country.
But in a year in which the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are expected to handle a record 14.4 million cargo containers, at least one expert is worried that the monitors could cause the kind of delays that left dozens of ships idle at port and offshore last year.
"There are some concerns that this will slow the flow and create backlogs," said Ed Roche, a bond analyst at Moody's Investors Service who specializes in port debt. "At high-flow ports like these, they need to keep those containers moving."
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said this week that the first radiation detectors -- known as portals -- would be operating at two terminals at the Port of Los Angeles by mid-May. The customs service hopes to have portals installed at all 13 terminals at the twin ports by year's end.
The radiation monitors are in use at ports in Oakland, New York and New Jersey and Jacksonville, Fla. The monitors have been in place at the San Ysidro border crossing since April.
The portals look like giant metal detectors tall enough to accommodate the trucks that haul seagoing containers to and from the ports. As the trucks drive through the portal, the monitor sounds an alarm if radiation is detected inside the container.
At that point, the container is scanned with a hand-held device that identifies the specific radioactive isotope and its location in the container. The results are then compared with the container's shipping manifest in a process that usually takes only a few minutes, said Kevin McCabe, chief inspector for Customs and Border Protection at the port at Newark, N.J.
McCabe said about 1.5% of the containers that move through Newark each day show traces of radiation. Among the culprits are the element thorium -- commonly found in ceramics, pottery and kitty litter -- bananas, which contain a radioactive potassium isotope, and a variety of electronic products. The monitors have even flagged people who recently received chemotherapy treatments.
McCabe said the system, while not perfect, hadn't disrupted traffic at his port.
Even after getting a "hit" on a container, he said, "it's very rare that we have had to do a full unloading" of the container to determine the cause.
And Jim McKenna, president of the association that represents West Coast shipping lines, was hopeful that the radiation monitors won't snarl traffic at L.A. and Long Beach.
"You just drive them through and most of the time you don't even have to slow down," he said.
That said, 40% of the containers that enter the U.S. come through L.A. and Long Beach, and "the ports are caught between a rock and a hard place," said Roche of Moody's.
And concerns about traffic tie-ups aren't restricted to the Southland.
A report released this week by the Government Accountability Office said the Energy Department's effort to get foreign ports to install the radiation detectors -- known as the Megaports Initiative -- had scored only two successes: at Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the Greek port of Piraeus -- neither of which are considered among the world's highest-risk harbors.
"Gaining the cooperation of foreign governments has been difficult in part because some countries have concerns that screening large volumes of containers will create delays that could inhibit the flow of commerce at their ports," the GAO said.
Customs Commissioner Bonner said the U.S. government was sensitive to those concerns and had held back on introducing another security program that would require the use of "smart sensors" on every incoming cargo container.
The sensors, which are designed to raise an alarm if the container has been tampered with, are registering too many false positives -- caused in part by the normal shifting of containers while at sea.
"Our goal," Bonner said, "has been to add equipment that improves the security of Southern California and the United States as a whole without materially slowing down and choking off the flow of goods."