Security: Wiring the Ports

The prospect of terrorists' getting hold of nuclear weapons became a tangible fear in the weeks after September 11. As the United States scrambled to assess its weak spots, customs officials took a closer look at the nation's seaports, and shut them down. Things got moving again, but many security experts don't think ports in the United States and other countries are as secure as they should be. The main problem: a shipping container is subject to byzantine regulations and many levels of bureaucracy in its journey from home port to port of call, creating myriad security holes.

One port operator in Philadelphia recently decided to take an unusual tack. It is implementing its own high-tech container management system that improves the port's ability to detect problem shipments and to react to emergencies if they occur.

Philadelphia's strategy addresses a key vulnerability: the practice of prescreening shipments. For one thing, it relies on the honor system—officials trust captains to report contents accurately, but the information is rarely verified. And the screening systems in place can't detect nuclear material, says Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and now senior fellow for national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The city plans to install radiation-sensing devices, developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and wire them into a computer system that will do more than merely sound an alarm if radiation is detected. It will also assess the level of threat, based on factors that include the amount of radioactive material detected, and put in motion an appropriate emergency-response procedure. For instance, if a detector finds a large amount of radiation coming from a container that's consistent with a dirty bomb (an explosive with radioactive material added), the computer system will send a notice to first responders recommending areas to be evacuated and where firefighters and police should report. "Mapping out those practices and committing them to a library will enable people to deal with those things in an agile way," says Leo Holt, head of Holt Logistics Corp., the port operator in Philadelphia.

Even if the Philly approach works, it won't be a magic bullet. But it may provide a needed layer of security. Given the intractable problem of coordinating international customs operations, that's a better strategy than waiting.