A Solution for the Shipping Container Threat


It's late morning at the Port of Long Beach, the largest port of entry into the United States on the West Coast just south of Los Angeles in California. A Liberian-flagged container ship is putting into the harbor snuggly secured to a couple of powerful tugs. The Pilot Barge is standing off the port side, having just put the harbor pilot aboard to guide the large vessel for the last couple of miles to one of the container offloading docks. A small Coast Guard cutter is standing off the starboard side, awaiting permission to board the vessel for a routine customs and security inspection.

A few minutes later the container signals the cutter, and she pulls alongside. Several uniformed members mount the accommodation ladder up the slab side of the vessel. The check is routine; the Coast Guard inspects approximately 2 percent of incoming containers, which means that only a small percentage of incoming vessels are actually boarded.

About 1,100 miles to the north, a Bahamian-registered container ship has just entered Puget Sound under guidance of an experienced Puget Sound pilot. The Coast Guard waves this ship on. Protocol indicates that the next vessel will be boarded. It is due in fifteen minutes.

And 2,800 miles to the east, where the mid-afternoon sun is beginning to cast shadows in downtown Manhattan, a container ship registered in Cyprus passes under the Bayonne Bridge guided by a New York Harbor pilot on its way to New York's container docks. As in Seattle, the Coast Guard waves the ship on, since it had just boarded another vessel 20 minutes earlier.

Docking a large container ship is not like parking a car, even a stretch limousine.

In Long Beach, four tugs push the unwieldy Liberian container ship against the dock while longshoreman secure it to massive bollards with heavy hawsers.

In Seattle, a similar scene plays out. Huge cranes already reach out over the Bahamian vessel, preparing to offload its towering stacks of containers.

Things are a bit slower in New York, but within the hour, the Cypriot vessel is securely moored.

Deep inside each vessel, in three containers well buried under dozens of other containers, three simple devices sense that all motion in the three vessels has ceased. The three ships are moored. Three sensors independently check the U.S. government's time signal broadcast from Boulder Colo., and set their clocks to a coordinated time mark. Three electronic relays switch, and three countdown timers start counting passing seconds.

Twenty minutes later, the sensors determine that motion has not recommenced. A second set of timers starts. Fifteen minutes later, the sensors determine that the vessels still have not moved, and begin to charge three banks of capacitors from three groups of lead-acid automobile batteries located nearby inside the containers. Three minutes later the capacitor banks have reached full charge. The motion sensors conduct a final check - still no motion.

Simultaneously in Long Beach, Seattle, and New York, three electronic relays send their silent signals. Three capacitor banks discharge into the igniters of three carefully shaped explosive charges. They explode, ramming three shaped blocks of plutonium against three plutonium targets. The containers holding these mechanisms are sufficiently strong to hold together for a few microseconds.

During those microseconds, the three smashed plutonium lumps which are now at critical mass begin an incredibly rapid buildup of neutrons. These neutrons immediately generate more neutrons in an uncontrollable chain reaction.

In a heartbeat, nearly simultaneously in Long Beach, Seattle, and New York harbors, 10 kilotons of nuclear fire is unleashed dockside. For a thousand feet in all directions, everything is incinerated in a massive fireball. The blast front destroys everything but the most massive buildings for a mile beyond that. For another three miles, the blast and radiation kill everything in its path.

Because the detonation happened essentially at the water's surface, a huge plume of superheated radioactive steam shoots skyward - two, three miles. Then it gets ripped by the prevailing winds, landward across south-central Los Angeles in California, north and east across central Seattle in Washington state, and directly across Manhattan in New York.

Hundreds of thousands die in less than a minute since the capacitor banks first discharged.

The United States has 95,000 miles of open shoreline, 361 ports, and a 3.5-million square mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Ninety-five percent of cargo tonnage moving in and out of the country is by shipboard container. Each year, more than 7,500 commercial vessels make approximately 51,000 port calls, unloading over 6 million marine containers. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, container cargo will quadruple in the next 20 years to approximately 30 million containers, each of which may contain a nuclear device, or chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

The vast majority of these vessels sail under flags of convenience, registered in Tonga, Panama, Liberia, Cyprus, or the Bahamas, which means that they are not subject to control by any international authority.

How then can we begin to protect ourselves from the inevitable attempt by al Qaeda to smuggle some kind of weapon of mass destruction into our land? How can we prevent a scenario like that presented earlier, a scenario that only requires Iraq to make available to al Qaeda one or more of the Hiroshima-type nuclear devices we believe it has produced during the last decade (see "A Nuclear Armed Iraq Must be the Next Target," DefenseWatch, Dec 12, 2001, and "Looking for Nukes in all the Wrong Places" DefenseWatch, Dec 11, 2002)?

The solution to that underlying problem is really quite simple: (1) Make sure that nothing bad gets loaded into a container destined for the United States; and (2) Make sure that once a container is sealed, nothing bad gets introduced into the container between sealing and arrival at its destination.

Current news reports speak of billions of dollars and months or years of development to implement an effective defense against this threat. It certainly is possible to spend this amount over years to develop something, but why? We have everything we need right now to implement 100-percent protection within the next five to six weeks. And the cost is moderate.

The first problem is to ensure nothing bad is placed in containers destined for our shores. It amounts to inspecting the loading of approximately 17,000 containers worldwide each day.

If you assume that an individual can oversee the loading of ten containers a day, this effort will require between 1,700 and 2,000 individuals working an eight-to-ten hour day over a 7-day week. Realistically, this probably would actually entail 4,000 to 5,000 individuals working more normal hours.

This is a simple manpower and logistics problem: Use the Coast Guard, or some other already existing manpower source. Decree that only inspected containers can enter the United States. If you wish to bring goods of any kind into our country, your container must be inspected and sealed at loading.

How do you seal the containers? There are many commercially available ways to do this. The key is to create a seal that will absolutely indicate if it has been tampered with during transit. One especially elegant method is to use a sealing caulk similar to standard construction caulk, except that it contains metallic flakes that carry a magnetic signature. After overseeing the loading of a container, the U.S. agent seals the opening with a standard caulking gun, and then uses a simple hand-held device to "read" the magnetic signature around the seal. This should take about five minutes or less.

The reading would subsequently be uploaded to a central database protected by 128-bit public/private key encryption. Upon arrival off the U.S. Coast, the seal would be read again, securely transmitted to the central database where it would be compared to the original reading. Except for the actual two readings, the process can be fully automated, and eventually, can be totally automated.

There are other equally effective ways of doing this. The key is to keep the per-container cost as low as possible.

In addition to ensuring that the original seal remains uncompromised, we also need a way to determine that the container has not been breached. Several interrelated methods can effect this.

Eventually, every container can be painted inside with a paint containing metallic flakes similar to the sealing caulk. A recording of the magnetic pattern taken from the outside after painting could then be compared to the pattern upon arrival at the United States. A simpler technique would be to spray the empty container inside with clumps of material that will permanently stick to the walls and bottom of the container. In either technique, any breeching of the container would register as a changed signature, which would preclude the container from entering the country.

Another way to accomplish the same thing as the seals and paint, and one that may be easier to monitor from a distance, is to place a monitoring device inside each container upon sealing it, a device that would monitor some specific parameter that is unlikely to change during transit, but that would change significantly, were the container to be opened or breached. This device could then be remotely queried from time to time, to determine whether or not anything has changed.

Such devices already exist commercially. They are inexpensive - just a few dollars each. They can be set to measure air pressure, moisture content, specific gravity, placement and other, more esoteric parameters that would remain constant during transit, but would change if the container were breached.

The point is that right now containers can be securely protected for a materials cost of less than $100 per container, perhaps as low as half of that. The manpower cost, of course, is another matter, but it looks like the total annual cost would be quite manageable. Since we are trying to protect all of us, the initial cost for these precautions should be covered by the taxpayer, but eventually, as the system is entirely in place, the material cost can be shifted to the shippers so that it would appear as a very small surcharge on goods shipped in from abroad.

The bottom line is that we absolutely must protect ourselves from this threat. To do this, we need a national policy that all incoming containers be inspected; we need to implement a simple way to accomplish this inspection and to ensure that inspected containers remain secure until they are delivered.

Should this not happen soon, we will inevitably face some variation of the horrific scenario as described at the beginning of this article.