The Dubai Ports World affair sure touched a nerve in the U.S. over the vulnerability of domestic ports to terrorist attack. Although U.S. authorities thoroughly inspect the 5% of cargo containers they identify as high-risk, only 45% of all containers pass through the most accurate radiation scanners. U.S. ports needn't be so vulnerable. At the Port of Hong Kong, a pilot program scans every container of cargo at two terminals of the megafacility with sophisticated radiation and gamma-ray screeners. Since late 2004 the setup has generated 1.4 million digital profiles of outbound containers at the port, the second busiest in the world behind Singapore.
The big irony is that Hong Kong's port is using American technology. San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., a $7.2 billion research and engineering company that does systems integration work for the U.S. government and is readying an initial public offering in 2006, designed Hong Kong's Integrated Container Inspection System (ICIS). The $10 million system can scan nearly 400 container trucks an hour and provide real-time data to help identify suspicious cargo, all the while keeping detailed records of what passes through the port.
So why isn't the U.S., which produces the world's most sophisticated high-tech port-protection technology, rushing to install this gear? So far, the U.S. has preferred to beef up security overseas -- stationing U.S. Customs inspectors in 43 foreign ports. But Hong Kong's port inspection program has caught the eye of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He plans to tour the ICIS project in April.
Here's what Chertoff will find: Container trucks in Hong Kong pass under two giant portals that first scan for radioactivity. Gamma-ray imaging checks for odd-sized objects that might conceal weapons. An optical scanner retrieves the ID numbers on the container while a computer integrates data into a database that could be accessed by ports worldwide.
So far the U.S. has been reluctant to embrace such high-tech solutions. Since September 11, Washington has increased the U.S. Coast Guard budget fivefold, to $1.5 billion, with $708 million in grants for U.S. ports. Yet U.S. authorities worry that the new high-tech scanning systems are unproven.
Then there's the expense. Stephen E. Flynn, a terrorism expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and ex-Science Applications adviser, figures it would cost $1.5 billion to install such systems at major container ports worldwide. Managing them and tracking the data would also require a huge outlay, but could be covered by a $50 to $100 surcharge per container paid by shipping companies.
Sensing big opportunity, other U.S. companies such as L-3 Communications Systems and Ocean Shipholdings are competing with Science Applications for contracts to build port-security gear. The U.S. is encouraging the rollout of more scanning gear at U.S. ports, but not on the scale of ICIS yet. Overseas port executives, meanwhile, are streaming into Hong Kong's port for a look-see. There could be a vibrant global market for such systems, but so far, at least, that market doesn't extend to U.S. shores.
By Brian Bremner, with Dawn Kopecki in Washington