Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is trying to negotiate with ports authorities around the countries to get port operators to pay for the costs of sustaining radiation detectors that the federal government has purchased and operated since 9/11 to help screen shipping containers arriving in the United States for illicit radiological or nuclear materials, a Massachusetts port official told Congress on Tuesday.

The first generation of Radiation Portal Monitors (RPMs) deployed at ports following 9/11 are nearing the end of their life expectancy but various ports are reporting that they have had “complicated discussions with their regional CBP officers on the ongoing responsibilities related to the RPMs,” Joseph Lawless, director of maritime security at the Massachusetts Port Authority, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Port of Houston. Photo: City of Houston.
Port of Houston. Customs and Border Protection deploys radiation portal monitors and ports of entry throughout the U.S. to scan arriving cargo for potentially threatening radiological materials. Photo: City of Houston.

For example, Lawless said, the CBP has requested that the Port of Jacksonville in Florida take on responsibility for funding technology sustainment of the RPMs deployed there.

“This is significant given the complex and critical nature of these federally-owned and currently maintained systems,” Lawless said. Lawless testified on behalf of the American Association of Port Authorities for which he is the chairman of its security committee.

“Other ports are reporting similar disruptions in the RPM program,” Lawless said. “There is too much at stake for ports and CBP officers to have to engage in policy and funding negotiations.” He added that “RPM detection is a federally-mandated program. CBP should request adequate federal funding to purchase, install and maintain all RPM equipment at ports throughout the United States.” Absent this, he said, the Department of Homeland Security should carve out grant funding for maintaining RPMs.

CBP currently scans nearly 100 percent of all truck and sea-borne cargo arriving in the United States at ports of entry using RPMs. The agency currently has 1,281 RPMs. In addition to using RPMs, which trucks typically drive through, CBP officers are also equipped with handheld and body-worn devices for radiological detection.

Under a recapitalization plan overseen by the CBP and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the RPMs are being replaced with systems that are more effective and efficient, Todd Owen, assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations at CBP, told the panel. Based on his experience working for CBP at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the initial generation of RPMs alarmed frequently for naturally occurring radiological materials found in container shipments, Owen said. The RPMs have a 10- to 15-year life-cycle, he said.

The RPMs at the port used to produce 300 to 400 radiation alarms daily from screening about 13,000 containers per day but after a technology refresh that includes new algorithms used with the RPMs the alarms have dropped to 35 a day, Owen said. Those are all non-threat radiological materials that the RPMs are alarming on, he said.

The hearing was called to examine the status of efforts to prevent and respond to a dirty bomb threat at a U.S. port. A dirty bomb refers to radiological material that would be dispersed using an explosive device, which could contaminate an area potentially for years in addition to the deaths and injuries that might result from the original explosion. The larger consequences of a successful dirty bomb attack would be “a series of cascading disruptions throughout the global supply system that would lead to billions of dollars in daily losses and cause gridlock across the intermodal transportation system within 10 days to two weeks,” Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer and currently director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern Univ., told the panel.

Flynn said that the “threat of a dirty bomb at a U.S. port remains a clear and present danger.” Flynn has argued many times since 9/11 that terrorist groups could relatively easily evade security regimes to place a dirty bomb into a shipping container, shield the device so that it can’t be detected, and then have it explode automatically when a triggering device attached to the door sets it off.

Flynn said that once a truck leaves a foreign factory, there are few controls in place to ensure the driver doesn’t temporarily divert the shipment so that a terrorist group can load the dirty bomb before the truck resumes its trip to the port.