Coast Guard looks at threats from non-conatinerized cargo

Published 25 October 2006

Break bulk and roll on/roll off cargo present a unique challenge awaiting a solution; cars, cotton bales, and turbine equipment cannot be easily moved through a portal radiation screener; a dirty bomb in a car trunk is just one of the horrifying scenerios

Two new books, “The Box” by Marc Levinson and “Box Boats” by Brian Cudahy, detail the shipping industry’s transition from breakbulk cargo — the bundled type featured in On the Waterfront — to the standardized containers used today. Malcolm McLean’s invention had a dramatic effect, not only driving down costs but also displacing some of America’s dominant ports as new ones had to be dredged and their infrastructure built from the ground up. The Port of Oakland, for instance, quickly overtook the Port of San Francisco as Northern California’s premiere shipping hub, and a similar story explains the rise of the Port of Long Beach in relation to its sister facility in Los Angeles.

Containers nowadays are looked at more as a security threat than as an economic marvel. More than fourteen million of them move annually through Los Angeles and Long Beach alone, and security experts are properly worried that one might contain a dirty bomb or other dangerous substance. In response, the securitization business has exploded in recent years, as have initiatives to scan cargo once it leaves the dock, including the recently signed SAFE Port Act. Yet the emphasis on containerized cargo has resulted in decreased attention paid to break bulk and roll on/roll off (“ro-ro” in shipper parlance). In a speech last week to the Maritime Security Council, Commandant Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard reemphasized these “threats and vulnerabilities” and called for new programs to address them.

Shipping experts break cargo down into four general categories: containerized, break (loose material such as petroleum that is stored in the hold, break (oversized items such as railroad ties and cotton bales that cannot fit in containers), and ro-ro (anything with wheels, including cars and tanks). These latter two have prompted the most concern because they are not subject to the intense screening reserved for containerized cargo, including radiation screening, and yet they can be easily manipulated to store dangerous substances. An enterprising terrorist, for instance, might stash a radioactive device in a car’s trunk. Once it arrived at an American port, detonation would be as easy as a timed device or the transmission of a radio signal.

Solving these concerns will be a great challenge. The efficiencies gained from containerization apply to both the interests of shippers and those of security experts. Screening can be done by moving a mass of cargo swiftly through a scanner. This cannot easily be done with cars, sailboats, and turbine equipment. There are, of course, handheld radiation detectors, but when one considers the millions of cars imported into the United States every year, this seems an unlikely solution. No doubt, great riches await the company that comes up with a better idea.

-read more in this PortSecurityNews report []