House Approves Bill To Search for Nukes Even Though Technology Doesn’t Exist

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The New York Sun

WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly approved legislation yesterday to try and stop nuclear weapons from being smuggled into the country by screening all cargo for radiological materials at seaports. Yet the technology will not be available, the Bush administration said.

The 421-2 vote capped months of election-year debate in Congress over how to make the 140 American seaports less vulnerable to terrorist threats without curbing commerce.

The bill “will improve the safety of the American people and the security of our global supply chain,” Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican of California, said. He said it “ensures our shores are our last line of defense, not our first.”

The Homeland Security Department currently opens for inspections 6% of the 11 million cargo containers that enter American seaports annually. Those containers are considered high-risk, said a department spokeswoman Leah Yoon, for reasons such as the security of the originating port or a shipper’s history.

The department aims to screen 65% of goods for radiological materials by October, Ms. Yoon said.

The administration said it may not have the money to put nuclear detectors at 22 major ports by next year as the legislation requires. It also termed as unnecessary a $400 million annual grant program over six years to pay for other security measures at ports.

A statement by the White House Office of Management and Budget said it was concerned about parts of the $5.5 billion bill “that have serious resource implications.”

A debate over the bill briefly escalated into a shouting match when the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, GOP Rep. Peter King of New York, said his Long Island district lost more 150 residents in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Taking aim at Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, who earlier held up a cargo container’s lock to call for stronger security seals, Mr. King said: “I don’t need visual aids to remind me what happened on September 11.”

“There were Bostonians on that plane!” Mr. Markey yelled back.

Congress made port security a priority after the fight this year over a Dubai company’s purchase of a British company that controlled of some operations at six American ports. The outcry led the Dubai company, DP World, to decide to sell the American operations to an American company.

House Democrats said the legislation does not go far enough to secure ports as they pushed an alternative that would require X-rays for all cargo at foreign ports that is headed to America.

Republicans said this requirement would snarl port traffic and stymie the economy because the high-tech X-ray technology needed is not widely available.

“All it takes is one atomic or radiological bomb to make 9-11 look like a firecracker,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat of New York, said. “If we really want to make this country safer, we must demand that before any container is put on a ship bound for the United States it must be scanned electronically in the foreign port. It’s too late if we find a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles or New York.”

The bill calls for screening 98% of all incoming cargo with the nuclear detectors by October 1, 2007. The measure includes:

* $2.4 billion for ports security grants over six years; Mr. King said the money would be shifted from U.S. Customs funds.

* $1.2 billion to expand and enhance security measures at foreign ports. That could mean buying radiation detectors to install worldwide.

* $536 million for research and development at Homeland Security’s office of domestic nuclear detection. Of this, an estimated $157 million would be spent on the radiation monitors, House aides said.

Currently, 214 radiological monitors that screen for nuclear materials are installed at American seaports, at an estimated cost of $350,000 each, Ms. Yoon said.

The House bill would require port workers to secure ID cards with tamper-resistant digital photographs – something Homeland Security is already doing.

A Senate committee has approved a similar bill that would require Homeland Security to provide nuclear screening and X-ray imaging of cargo at three foreign seaports as a test pilot that could be expanded.

The New York Sun

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