WASHINGTON – Several House Democratics on Wednesday praised a new bill that would require all shipping containers coming into American ports to be screened for nuclear weapons before leaving their port of origin.
The bill, in the House Committee on Homeland Security, would require all shipping containers bound for the United States to be screened with the best available technology to detect radiation and atomic elements. It also requires the containers be sealed in such a way that a breach could be detected.
Four co-sponsors of the Democratic bill, the Sail Only if Scanned Act of 2006, are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Jarrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., attended a media briefing in Cannon House Office Building.
Nadler, who introduced the bill on March 8, said what gets shipped into American ports is far more important than who controls those ports. Only 5 percent of the 11 million shipping containers arriving in American ports every year are inspected, he said. The other 95 percent could contain an atomic bomb and nobody would know it.
Such screening is of paramount importance, Nadler said: "100 percent of containers should be scanned by the most modern available technology, by radiation detectors and gamma ray imaging to make sure of what's in them."
In the Senate, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., introduced a bill Tuesday that calls for the Department of Homeland Security to provide a plan to screen 100 percent of maritime containers at the point of final departure before ships head to the United States. His spokesman, Tom Steward, said Coleman has been investigating supply-chain security for two years and plans to hold two hearings at the end of this month to examine cargo screening and U.S. efforts to prevent radiological or nuclear weapons from being smuggled into the country.
"The technology does exist to solve this problem. In the port of Hong Kong, they have a system that works and has potential to screen 100 percent of containers. So at least we've seen it and know technologically it's possible and has allowed commerce to continue without impeding it," Steward told FOX News.
On Wednesday, the Senate also passed an amendment to the budget resolution that would add nearly $1 billion to ports security funding. The amendment sets a blueprint for spending but is not binding in law. However, it does demonstrate at least fleeting Senate interest in taking some action on that topic as the budget is developed for next fiscal year.
Port security was recently brought into the national spotlight when Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates-owned company, planned to manage six American ports, including Baltimore. With Congress close to blocking the deal, the company announced it would transfer its U.S. operations to a "United States entity" on March 9.
Nadler estimated inspection costs at $6.50 per container. The total capital cost for all the equipment would be $1.5 billion, with an annual operating cost of $70 million. Nadler suggested adding a $20 charge to each container shipped in to pay for the costs, "which could pay for all of this without even the taxpayers putting up any money."
The scanning would not add any time to the shipping process, Nadler said.
"It provides no delay," he said. "You can run a container through the scanners on a flatbed truck at 10 miles per hour."
Pelosi echoed Nadler's concerns, saying every container must be scanned long before it gets to the United States.
"All of the experts on homeland security say that the single biggest threat to homeland security is a container with a radioactive bomb in it coming into our port," Pelosi said.
Oberstar said the Bush administration has failed to implement the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, and America needs to care as much about port security as it does about airline security.
"Port security is in worse shape today than aviation security was on September 11, 2001," he said. The act requires a plan for screening containers before they're loaded or leave port.
"Instead, this administration's port security program is relying on the say-so of our foreign shippers, foreign governments and container handlers," Oberstar said. "That is unacceptable. As every passenger is screened, we need every container screened."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.