A terrorist attack involving even a single ship might force Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to abruptly close all 361 U.S. ports, said William Schubert, the Transportation Department's maritime administrator.
Grounding air transportation for four days last year as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cost businesses billions in lost revenue and forced the federal government to bail out airlines. Those events would pale in comparison to a seaport shutdown, Schubert told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information.
"We would have to shut our ports down for four months just to check all the containers," Schubert said, referring to the tens of thousands of 40-foot containers stacked at U.S. ports on any given day. "If anything would ruin our economy, that would."
The few lawmakers present at the hearing, including those who represent the nation's largest ports in New York and Los Angeles, agreed that ports are extremely vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction attacks. These concerns are accentuated by predictions that container cargo traffic, which constitutes 90 percent of global trade, could double or triple within 20 years.
"If it comes to commerce or protection, protection will always come first," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose state has three of the busiest ports in the country, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.
"I don't mind our ports being shut down for four months if that will prevent a nuclear explosion. That's nothing," she said.
Terrorists Likely to Shield Weapons
Meanwhile, any nuclear bomb smuggled into a U.S. port in a shipping container would probably be encased in lead, shielding it from inspectors' handheld radiation detectors, Customs Service assistant commissioner Bonni Tischler told the subcommittee.
If terrorists or agents of any country ever try to sneak a nuclear bomb into a U.S. seaport-a realistic scenario considering that on a daily basis drugs, weapons, material goods and even people are smuggled into the country in shipping containers-they would likely conceal its radiation emissions with lead casing, Tischler said.
"If it's shielded, you're not going to pick it up" with the 4,000 handheld radiation detectors currently used by customs inspectors throughout the country, Tischler said. "So I think we need lead detectors."
Customs inspectors do use X-ray devices to scan containers-readings that would detect lead casings-but these contraptions are large, cumbersome, crane-like devices only used on a small percentage of the 6 million containers shipped into the United States each year.
While it has been frequently reported that inspection rates for containers are only 2 percent, Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said the figures are higher. Rates are even up to 10 percent with Canadian goods, under the belief terrorists might try to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States through Canadian ports of entry, Bonner said.
Shipping containers offloaded at Canadian and U.S. ports could soon wind up almost anywhere in the United States after being trucked or railroaded from a seaport without even being opened. Any containers that contain hidden nuclear, biological or chemical weapons could then be detonated or released at some unsuspecting site.
In the past decade the shipping industry has spared safety for profits, said Feinstein.
"Everything has been to speed trade, let it go through, ask questions later," Feinstein said. "I agree with [Tischler] on the shielding, and I agree with the need for more X-rays."