The costs to implement a congressional mandate to electronically scan all shipping containers at overseas ports before departing for the U.S. would be between $12 billion and $32 billion over a decade, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says this month in a report that examines the costs and operational impacts of a mandate that so far hasn’t been acted on.

These estimates don’t include potential reciprocity laws by foreign governments requiring the U.S. to scan all cargo its exports by maritime terminals, which would further increase costs to the country, says June report, Scanning and Imaging Shipping Containers Overseas: Costs and Alternatives.

Images of a radiation portal monitor, container imaging system, and container ships. Photo: Congressional Budget Office
Images of a radiation portal monitor, container imaging system, and container ships. Photo: Congressional Budget Office

Congress in 2007 mandated that the Department of Homeland Security using imaging systems and radiation detectors scan all incoming maritime containers before they are loaded onto a U.S.-bound ship. The law was supposed to go into effect in 2012 but several extensions later the new deadline is 2018.

The law was passed due to concerns that weapons of mass destruction could be hidden in a sea container destined for the U.S.

The report looks at two options for achieving this scanning, one that would have Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or foreign partners install scanning and imaging equipment at 453 foreign ports in 130 countries, and the other would have CBP or foreign partners install the equipment at 121 foreign ports that handle 97 percent of U.S.-bound containers.

The first option would cost between $150 to $220 per container and would be paid for by the U.S. government, which could get its money back through fees on shippers. This option would cost between $22 billion and $32 billion over 10 years, CBO says.

CBO estimates that CBP currently spends about $1.3 billion total over 10 years to image abut 5 percent of inbound cargo containers using X-ray or Gamma Ray imaging systems at U.S. seaports. This cargo is identified as high-risk by CBP’s National Targeting Center.

“Paying for the more comprehensive system would require an increase of 17 percent to 25 percent in CBP’s total budget, a reduction in other spending by CBP, an increase in fees assessed by shippers, or some combination of these actions,” CBO says.

A percentage of U.S. bound containers are scanned for radiological threats at overseas ports and almost all containers arriving in the U.S. by land or sea go through radiation portal monitors.

The second option reviewed by CBO is less expensive and focuses on scanning containers at the busiest overseas ports. The report estimates the cost for CBP or foreign partners to install imaging equipment at the 121 ports that load 97 percent of containers on U.S.-bound ships would be between $12 billion to $22 billion over 10 years. The cost to scan a single container under this option is between $80 and $150.

If the U.S. were to implement the 100 percent overseas scanning mandate and foreign governments demanded the U.S. scan all containers leaving U.S. ports, the costs in both options could double, CBO estimates. Reciprocal scanning arrangements under the first option could raise the total imaging costs to between $37 billion and $63 billion over 10 years and between $27 billion and $53 billion under the second option, the report says.

The administrations of then President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama have resisted implementing the 100 percent overseas screening mandate due to the likelihood that the U.S. would bear a large percentage of the costs, which are deemed unaffordable, and because the screening regimen would slow the pace of commerce.

Beyond the two options considered in the report, CBO also briefly touches on options to increase scanning of containers at U.S. ports, which would avoid the diplomatic issues associated with overseas scanning. Doubling to 10 percent the number of arriving containers that are scanned in the U.S. would increase costs by $1 billion to $2 billion over 10 years, it says.

Screening all containers at all 74 U.S. ports that received international containers would increase costs between $4 billion and $8 billion over 10 years. A slightly less expensive option would be to conduct imaging at the busiest 32 U.S. seaports where 99.7 percent of inbound cargo arrives at a cost of $4 billion to $7 billion over a decade.

CBO points out that there are still gaps in container scanning even if the 100 percent mandate is enforced, overseas or at home.

“The options do not address other paths that smugglers might use, such as truck or rail at land crossings from Mexico or Canada, tunnels under the border, other types of commercial ships, private yachts, and aircraft,” the report says. “Those alternative paths could become more attractive if the United States sharply increased scanning and imaging of containers.”