In 2007, the United States Congress passed and President Bush signed into law theImplementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act. One provision of the Act mandated 100 percent screening of all U.S. bound cargoes for both nuclear material and explosives by December 31, 2011. This mandate included cargo aboard passenger planes where the people and their luggage undergo intrusive screening but other types of cargo often do not.
From the first this was recognized to be a challenging requirement. In a globalized economy based on just-in-time delivery, with worldwide overnight shipment to the U.S. of perishable items such as flowers, fruits and vegetables, and the arrival of between 11 and 15 million shipping containers into U.S. ports annually, speed is of the essence. Nevertheless, the human and economic effects of a single nuclear weapon or dirty bomb going off in a U.S. port or urban airfield was considered so serious that the goal of 100 percent cargo screening was considered appropriate. Lest you assume that cargo screening is no longer necessary, one need only consider last year’s toner cartridge bomb incident which was foiled due to excellent intelligence work, not because the bomb-laden cargo container was screened.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has missed the Congressionally-mandated deadline. Even worse, there is an effort underway to water down the requirement. Some shippers and importers complain that implementing the 100 percent goal would require a slow and laborious inspection regimen that would, in turn, result in huge delays and increased costs. DHS supports this effort, arguing that it should be required to focus only on suspicious cargo.
It turns out the naysayers are wrong and the goal of screening 100 percent of all cargo without delays and at a reasonable cost is now in sight. Back in June, I wrote a blog that discussed an emerging technology which could provide high confidence screening of cargo containers rapidly and cheaply. Using no government funds, only venture capital, Decision Sciences International Corporation, a private company, developed the Multi-Mode Passive Detection System (MMPDS). The MMPDS relies on naturally-occurring high energy particles as its source and a simple detector array to measure the change in the path of the particles based on their interactions with the material inside the container. Denser materials such as uranium, plutonium or high explosives cause greater changes in the paths compared to less dense materials. In theory, the MMPDS could detect shielded nuclear materials. Because the system did not need to generate high energy particles, its inventors claimed it would be fast, relatively cheap, extremely accurate and easy to operate.
Now theory has become fact. A successful test of the MMPDS has been conducted at Freeport, the Bahamas. The system was able to accurately and repeatedly detect targets representing nuclear materials under a variety of conditions and with no false positives. It took, on average, less than a minute to perform a scan — meaning that the system could be deployed at ports or border crossings without causing traffic problems or long delays. So impressive were the results of this test that DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) awarded Decision Sciences an eighteen month long, $2.7 million contract to support the government’s evaluation of MMPDS’s effectiveness in detecting nuclear material and its readiness for transition to production.
The goal of affordably screening 100 percent of all inbound cargo is within sight. It could come even sooner if DNDO would expedite its test program. Testing amounts to running trucks with cargo containers repeatedly through a structure very similar to an Easy Pass monitor. It is possible to run hundreds of events using different types of containers with all sorts of materials in a very short period of time. In fact, the majority of the eighteen months DNDO requires to conduct the proposed evaluation will be eaten up by the organization’s laborious approach to planning a test program.
The point is that there is now no need to back away from the requirement to screen 100 percent of all inbound cargo. Because it is simple and cheap to deploy and employ and very fast, the MMPDS is the answer to DHS’s perennial challenge of securing the homeland without undermine the movement of people and goods. This is a capability that needs to be on a fast track to global deployment.
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