More than 200 times each day, authorities detect radiation in containers arriving off cargo ships at Port Newark. It's in ceramic tiles, granite, pottery, kitty litter — all natural products made from Earth's elements.
This month, the port is getting a new generation of radiation detectors that will more quickly distinguish those natural products from dangerous nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists.
It's just one of several new technologies being used at the nation's third busiest seaport to help screen for dirty bombs or terrorist weapons.
"Of all the areas that need to be addressed, this is the Holy Grail. This is the one that's the scariest," said Tom Barnes, a maritime security expert with Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. and retired U.S. Navy captain.
"You can make a lot of people sick or even kill a lot of people," he said. "When you talk about radiation, that's what shuts areas down for 50 years. Just think Chernobyl."
The devices being tested at Port Newark represent the next generation in port security, according to Kevin McCabe, chief of seaport enforcement for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in New York and New Jersey. If they prove successful, they could change how ports across the nation screen for threats, he said.
Customs agents use hand-held isotope identifiers to confirm that cargo emits only naturally occurring radiation if an alarm is triggered by stationary sensors.
This can happen every few minutes at Port Newark, where 5,000 to 6,000 containers arrive daily.
One recent morning, the light on one of the goal-post-shaped radiation detectors changed from green to red as a tractor trailer passed through with a loaded container behind it.
A customs inspector then walked alongside the container holding up a radiation detector that took readings on what was inside. The readings soon showed the radiation was nothing to be concerned about. It was ceramic tile — exactly what the truck's paperwork indicated.
The alert was canceled, and the truck continued on its way out of the port, all within about three minutes.
The new detectors, Advanced Spectroscopic Portals, would identify the cargo as trucks haul the containers out of the seaport, without the need for officers to walk around the truck, pressing hand-held units against its side and waiting for sensors to determine what's inside.
Port Newark will be the first U.S. seaport to test the ASP detectors, which cost $1.1 billion to develop. If the tests are successful, they likely would be deployed nationally, McCabe said. Testing will start this month, and they should be operational by early 2007.
Other major security initiatives either under way or planned for Port Newark include an advance imaging system capable of peering far deeper into cargo containers than the current technology allows, and the deployment of four portable radiation detection trucks that can scan cargo containers and create an image of what's inside.
Where current imaging systems can penetrate about 3 to 5 inches of steel, the new system, mounted on a vehicle resembling a large Winnebago camper, can see about a foot and a half inside.
About 7 percent of the containers that come into Port Newark — 350 to 400 as day — are considered to be high-risk, singled out for extra inspections, either because of their points of origin, their listed contents, or unfamiliar shippers. Of those, 25 to 30 are completely emptied and checked by hand.
All cargo is screened using a computer database that lists virtually everything that has entered or left the port in the past 25 years and is a useful source on past shipping patterns. The screening makes anomalies easily apparent, McCabe said.