This Long-Lost Law Leaves U.S. Ports Vulnerable To Nukes

As North Korea conducts its fifth nuclear test, the nation's ports remain an oft-ignored gaping hole that is keeping terrorism experts up at night

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 09, 2016 at 12:23 PM ET

A cargo ship carrying thousands of shipping containers filled with shoes and rubber leaves a port in Saudi Arabia and heads for New York. Tucked away in one of the containers, unknown to the ship’s crew, is a nuclear weapon. When the ship reaches New York City, the weapon detonates, killing thousands and destroying the Ports of New York and New Jersey, rendering the third largest port in the country — which handles more than 3.3 million containers and $200 billion in cargo each year — uninhabitable and unusable for decades. The human toll and the economic impact of such an event could cripple the U.S. economy and disrupt trade across the globe.

That’s a scenario that has worried lawmakers and nuclear terrorism experts for more than a decade. Fifteen years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the nation’s ports remain an oft-ignored gaping hole in U.S. national security, according to many lawmakers and nuclear terrorism experts—despite a federal mandate requiring all incoming shipping containers be scanned for radioactive material before they get to the U.S.

“Right now, our ports are vulnerable targets for terrorism,” Congresswoman Janice Hahn told Vocativ. “Not only do they lack sufficient security, an attack on just one port could cripple the national, if not global, economy.”

Hahn is the Democratic representative for a district that includes the Port of Los Angeles, which along with the nearby Port of Long Beach are the two busiest ports in the U.S. Collectively, the two ports handle more than 15 million shipping containers carrying upwards of $450 billion in cargo annually. She is also the co-chair of the House PORTS Caucus, a bipartisan coalition aimed at strengthening port security. The thought of a nuclear weapon or “dirty bomb” reaching the Port of Los Angeles is what “keeps me up at night,” she said.

To underscore the economic impact a nuclear attack at a busy port would have on the U.S., Hahn referenced a 2002 labor lockout that shutdown 29 West Coast ports for 11 days and cost the U.S. economy an estimated $10 billion. The work stoppage became such an economic problem that then-President George W. Bush invoked the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act, an emergency provision that limits the power of labor unions, to end the lockout.

“Right now, our ports are vulnerable targets for terrorism. Not only do they lack sufficient security, an attack on just one port could cripple the national, if not global, economy.” —Congresswoman Janice Hahn

Kingston Reif is the director of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan organization that provides analyses on arms control policies. Like Hahn, he worries about the security of the ports and the catastrophic consequences a nuclear weapon could deliver if a country like North Korea — which conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday that rattled the region with a 5.3 magnitude earthquake — smuggles one into a shipping container bound for the U.S. He describes it as a “low probability” but “high consequence” event.

“There is a risk. There is a threat. But overall it’s a low probability one, but the consequences would be so great that steps are required to secure this [bomb-making] material at the source, before they can be turned into weapons and hidden in places like a container ship,” he told Vocativ.

Both Hahn and Reif agree that more needs to be done to prevent a nuclear attack on a U.S. port, but they fall into different camps in terms of how to go about it.

In October, Hahn reiterated her longstanding concerns about the security of the nation’s ports and reaffirmed her support of measures that would require every shipping container that comes into the U.S. to be scanned for radioactive material before they leave their ports of origin. Only about 3 percent of the containers that arrive in U.S. ports from countries around the world are scanned for radioactive materials, according to Hahn. Critics of the plan — and there are many, including Reif and countless importers — say that scanning every container that comes into the U.S. is not only ambitious, but unrealistic. However, the plan to scan every imported container isn’t new, and should already be standard operating procedure in the shipping industry if elements of a 2006 law had been enacted by the 2012 deadline put in place by Congress. But they haven’t.

The idea to scan incoming shipping containers is a product of the September 11 attacks. In 2002, the Department of Customs and Border Protection launched the Container Security Initiative to put measures in place to better secure incoming shipping containers. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report raised the issue of securing shipping containers, noting that “while commercial aviation remains a possible target, terrorists may turn their attention to other modes. Opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime or surface transportation.”

The report also said that “the most powerful investments may be for improvements in technologies with applications across the transportation modes, such as scanning technologies designed to screen containers that can be transported by plane, ship, truck, or rail.” It acknowledged, however, that widespread deployments of these types of technologies are “years away.” In its recommendation, the Commission noted that “hard choices must be made in allocating limited resources. The U.S. government should identify and evaluate the transportation assets that need to be protected, set risk-based priorities for defending them, select the most practical and cost-effective way of doing so, and then develop a plan, budget and funding to implement the effort.”

Congress responded to the report with the Security and Accountability For Every Port Act (SAFE Port Act), introduced by former California Congressman Dan Lungren, for which Hahn continues to advocate after its failure to be implemented. It’s part of a broader plan that Homeland Security officials said in 2012 is designed to extend “our zone of security outward, ensuring that our physical border is not the first or last line of defense, but one of many.”

The part of the law that requires every container to be scanned has yet to be implemented for a variety of reasons — many of which were predicted by the 9/11 Commission in its recommendation. In May of 2012, then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress that meeting the 2012 deadline would be impossible — the challenge of getting more than 700 ports across the world to implement a U.S. law aside, she said the estimated $16 billion cost made it even more difficult to meet the 2012 deadline (the agency’s total budget for 2012 was about $56 billion.) So she extended an exemption to the requirement until 2014. The deadline was extended again in 2014, this time to 2016 — much to the delight of U.S. importers, who see much of the current technology used to scan containers as disruptive to an already time-crunched process of loading and unloading containers from cargo ships.

In a September 2014 letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and several members of Congress — written on behalf of dozens of trade groups that rely on the shipping industry, including the National Chicken Council and the Halloween Industry Association — trade organizations urged Congress to repeal the “100 percent scanning” mandate, arguing that it’s “impractical and does not actually improve security.”

“The Congressional act was very well-intentioned,” Dr. Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists, told Vocativ, “but there are concerns for people on the commerce side who see this as something that will slow down the process [of loading and unloading shipping containers].” Not to mention, he added, “the technology isn’t there yet” — current scanners, he said, also tend to detect things like kitty litter and granite, which also contain radioactive materials. In other words, he said, if every container that setoff the scanner had to be set aside and searched further it could seriously disrupt the flow of moving containers through ports, which already are overburdened by the lack of infrastructure to handle a recent increase in container traffic — and time, in the shipping business, means money.

Whatever the cost of delays, or the $16 billion former Secretary Napolitano estimates it would cost to get a 100 percent scanning program off the ground, it doesn’t compare to the economic catastrophe and loss of life that would be caused by a nuclear weapon detonating in a major U.S. shipping port.

In 2006, the RAND Corporation Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy published a report outlining what would likely happen if a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb was stashed in a shipping container and detonated at a busy U.S. port. For the hypothetical study, RAND used the Port of Long Beach, which is located about two miles from the Port of Los Angeles. The report’s authors chose this scenario because “analysts consider it feasible,” and because “it is highly likely to have a catastrophic effect, and the target is both a key part of the U.S. economic infrastructure and a critical global shipping center.” Based on that scenario, the report found that about 60,000 people could die instantly when the weapon is detonated. Another 150,000 could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and require medical attention and six million more may try to flee Los Angeles in a panic. After the initial blast, up to three million people may need to be relocated to get away from the contaminated area.

The economic impact of decimating the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles would also be devastating. The initial blast and resulting fires would likely destroy all the infrastructure at both ports, including oil refineries that produce one-third of the gas in western states. The initial cost of the nuclear attack could exceed $1 trillion, the report found, and that’s just for things like medical care for people injured in the blast, an evacuation of the affected areas, insurance claims, and reconstruction. The economic pain would spread far beyond Los Angeles — according to the report, a blast at the port could send many loans and mortgages in California into default and some of the largest insurance companies in the country could go bankrupt trying to payout claims to people and businesses impacted by the blast. The long-term economic consequences “are likely to spread far beyond the initial attack, reaching a national and even international scale.”

“In general, consequences would far outstrip the resources available to cope with them,” the report’s authors concluded.

While a rogue state like North Korea remains the top concern for port security experts, terrorist groups that get their hands on nuclear material are another threat that needs to be considered.

Arms Control Association’s Reif said a terrorist group like ISIS is probably capable of building a 10-kiloton bomb, but obtaining the materials is the hard part. “My understanding is that if they were able to get their hands on the material, making the device is relatively easy,” he said. “The real challenge is the material. That’s why it’s so important to make sure they can’t get the material in the first place.”

Reif said there are about 25 countries around the world that have the materials needed to make a nuclear weapon, and many of those materials are “more vulnerable than they should be.” But there is still a significant amount of materials that were once stockpiled by the former Soviet Union, only to disappear after its collapse. Finding these materials, Reif said, is challenging, and that’s where he feels more resources need to be focused, not on the ambitious and flawed task of scanning every shipping container that comes into a U.S. port. “For me, what’s most important is the first line of defense activities,” he said. “If 100 percent is not feasible or executable it makes sense to me to start at the source.”

“When it comes to ISIL or Daesh, we’ve never seen a terrorist group as brutal or willing to kill large numbers of civilians,” said Reif, who was using alternative names for ISIS. “They have territory, they have money, they have a global network of recruits — in terms of the availability of materials needed to make a [nuclear weapon], the good news is that great progress has been made since the end of the Cold War in securing these materials. But they’re still out there.”

For the Federation of American Scientists’ Ferguson, the most likely threat in terms of using a shipping container to transport a nuclear weapon is that a hostile government that already has them, but has no missiles or other means to deliver them to their target. That’s North Korea, which—as each of their failed missile tests have shown in recent years—has the weapons but has no realistic way of delivering them to a target.

“It could actually happen…terrorists and hostile governments are different things,” he said. “Look at North Korea. They have plutonium. They have uranium. Then the question is whether they could get those weapons into the United States. Can’t rule it out.”