The Dirty Bomb Stops Here 

The Port of Oakland becomes the nation's first to screen all incoming cargo for radioactivity.

Shippers of hidden nukes, bananas, and Canadian kitty litter might want to dock hassle-free somewhere else from now on.

As of this week, the Port of Oakland will be the first major seaport in the nation to screen all incoming cargo containers for radiation. Four years and at least $3.2 million in the making, the port's eight radiation portal monitors are advanced models of devices used in former Soviet bloc countries to prevent the spread of nuclear materials.

Every container trucked from the port now goes through one of the devices -- RPMs for short -- which consist of a pair of fourteen-foot-tall pillars tuned to detect gamma rays and high-energy neutrons.

Truckers drive their boxes through at 5 mph while the yellow-painted columns sniff for radioactivity. Most often, they'll detect bananas or toilets, explained Steven Baxter, chief of US Customs and Border Protection for Northern California. The RPMs sense any radiation above normal background levels, so shipments high in potassium, such as bananas, and other products that contain radioactive isotopes -- the glazing on some toilets and clay in certain kitty litters -- trip alarms. Anywhere from a handful to fifteen false positives happen every day, said Raymond Boyle, the port's general manager: "You have to be pretty sensitive, so in setting the system up you always have some."

If a terrorist did try to smuggle a radiological weapon into the port, the RPMs should issue an alert, and distinguish the source as gamma rays or neutrons -- although the latter is extremely rare, since only heavy hitters such as plutonium emit neutrons. "We've never had a neutron reading," Baxter said.

Following such an alert, a Customs agent would sweep the container in question with a handheld radiation sensor to confirm the RPM readings. If the cargo manifest can't explain the radiation levels detected, the container is hauled to a secondary location where a device similar to an X-ray machine screens the density of its contents. A terrorist, presumably, would try to mask a radioactive weapon in water, concrete, and steel, but detectors would show telltale density differences and the area would be secured, Baxter said.

The RPMs cost the port nothing -- they were paid for by the feds and installed with help from scientists at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, a national laboratory like Lawrence Livermore. New York and Los Angeles ports are currently constructing their own RPMs, Baxter said. Oakland finished first because it was able to quickly navigate the red tape between port officials, tenants, Customs, and the longshore and Teamsters' unions. "We stepped up and were ready to work with Customs and get it done," Boyle boasted.

In time, Customs and Border Protection intends to deploy the devices at every major US port and selected foreign ports as part of a layered approach to security that includes the so-called 24-Hour Rule as well as programs to secure private supply chains like Wal-Mart's and station US Customs agents in foreign ports.

The rule, which was put in place after 9/11, holds incoming cargo containers at foreign loading docks for at least 24 hours while Customs workers screen each digitized container manifest for anomalies. Containers that are designated high-risk -- less than 5 percent of the total -- get a physical inspection.

John Castanho, chairman of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's Coast Safety Committee, applauded Oakland's milestone achievement Friday, but said the ports still have a long way to go. "RPMs make everyone feel good, yet all it detects is radiation," he said. "It doesn't detect ordinary explosives like plastic- or gunpowder-based types. We've been pushing for more physical inspections for years. The fact is Customs doesn't have enough men to do more physical inspections, and the employers are always resisting."

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