Skip to main content
In The News

Cargo Security International: Dr. Stanton D. Sloane of Decision Sciences looks at how passive detection systems can play their part in protecting the global supply chain

By October 11, 2012No Comments


In our global, just-in-time economy, even small interruptions in the flow of commerce, can cause substantial schedule disruptions and have significant cost impacts. It is no wonder then, that the world’s shippers and port operators, are resistant to the idea of 100% scanning of cargo containers. To those who have to compete for customers every day, even small impacts can have significant consequences. Because current technology has limitations, resistance to the US mandate for 100% cargo scanning is understandable. It does not make sense to implement something that has the potential to significantly impact the flow of commerce. That said, most of us – shippers and port operators alike – would agree that a safer supply chain, and more secure ships and ports is something we should support, irrespective of a government mandate. After all, ships are expensive assets, and port operators live and work in likely target areas for terrorist activities. That is, we would support it if there was technology that was effective, efficient, and did not impact the flow of commerce.

When the US 9/11 Commission recommended 100% cargo scanning, it understood the technology did not exist at the time but foresaw that it would ultimately be developed. Thanks to pioneering work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and substantial private sector investments, the technology is now here, and it arrives at a time when the supply chain is becoming more at risk every day. Let’s face reality. Cargo containers offer an attractive mechanism for terrorists to deliver a nuclear nightmare. A rogue nation or motivated terrorist does not need to invest in intercontinental ballistic missiles. All they need to do is conceal a device in a shipping container and falsify the associated documentation to enable it to be delivered to a port. Graham Allison, of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, was looking at exactly this problem when he wrote that a nuclear attack on the United States ‘is far more likely to arrive in a cargo container than on the tip of a missile’.

Some 16 million cargo containers arrive at US ports annually, and a very small percentage are being scanned prior to arrival. Current scanning technology has limitations when it comes to detecting heavily shielded nuclear materials, and certain types of cargo cannot be x-rayed. These factors are well known, and in all likelihood, the terrorists have done their homework and will package their devices to defeat current systems. The world’s supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and our adversaries only have to be successful one time, whereas those trying to protect us against this threat have to be successful 100% of the time. Not good odds. Gary Gilbert, the Senior Vice President of Hutchison Port Holdings, describes it this way: ‘The reality is that we face a world where a nightmare in a box potentially awaits any nation.’

Approximately 8.4 billion metric tonnes (mt) of seaborne trade travelled the globe in 2010, according to the Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics, proving that the world’s economy moves almost entirely by sea. In the US alone, two billion mt are handled annually at ports and on waterways, according to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). Each state in the United States ‘relies on at least 15 seaports to handle its imports and exports, which total $3.8 billion worth of goods moving in and out of US seaports each day,’ says the AAPA. Even a single-day closing of US ports would put countless jobs, communities and economies at risk.When 29 ports on the US West Coast were shut down in a labour dispute in 2002, the damage to the economy was estimated at more than $1 billion per day. And, according to a CNN press report, industry watchers asserted that for every day a port is closed, it takes at least seven days to get the supply chain moving again.While an actual nuclear explosion at a port would cause an almost inestimable catastrophe, and likely alter forever our way of life, there does not have to be an explosion to cause devastation. The simple discovery of a device in a container would be enough to shut down the global supply chain until such time as it could be assured that there are no other devices in transit, or sitting in our ports waiting to be unloaded. The result would be the shutdown of hundreds of ports, hundreds of billions of dollars in damage to the national economy, and the global supply chain…and recovery would take years.

Securing the lifeline of the economy and the global cargo supply chain entails more than safeguarding cargo containers – it’s about protecting people, communities and our very way of life. The stakes are extremely high. This year, the US State Department said the attempted smuggling of weapons- grade uranium continued to raise alarm bells. Media reports highlighted a black market in radiological material. Last year in Moldova, for example, a single smuggling case reportedly involved 1 kilogramme (kg) of uranium 235 – more than enough to make a horrific weapon. The problem is not going away. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Annual Report states that 147 incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials took place in 2011 alone.

The 9/11 Commission was prescient not just in identifying the risk to the global supply chain – it was also right on target with its prediction that the right technology for the job would be developed. Decision Science’s Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS), the fruit of a public-private partnership, is capable of scanning all types of vehicles, rail cars and cargo containers and detecting even heavily shielded threats in less time than it takes a cargo container’s bill of lading to be checked by a port operator. The automated MMPDS system can provide ‘clear’ data to a port operator indicating if the container is safe and, if not, where the threat is hidden in a 3-D view that can be interpreted by anyone. The system is completely safe. It uses only what mother nature provides – natural cosmic ray energy – and requires no safe zones, or dedicated buildings. MMPDS is a technological breakthrough that harnesses nature by detecting and tracking muons which are produced from cosmic rays that enter the earth’s upper atmosphere and naturally and harmlessly rain down on the planet’s surface. As it is completely passive, MMPDS can be used to scan containers of food and other ‘organics’ without any risk and it poses no health risk to operators or other personnel. ‘From my perspective, of all the technology out there, muon tomography looks to be the best answer to the national and homeland security challenges associated with cargo scanning,’ said Tom Ridge, the first US Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Pennsylvania.

Revolutionary technology developed by private-public partnerships is certainly a great credit to the foresight of the 9/11 Commission and the US Congress. But even more importantly, it becomes a powerful tool in the fight against those who seek to harm us, directly or otherwise. It’s the public- private partnership success story that’s waiting for a happy ending: securing us all against a nightmare hidden inside a cargo container.

Cargo Security International October/November 2012

Leave a Reply