April 15, 2024

Japan Cargo Is Screened at U.S. Ports

Three Customs and Border Protection officers used the equipment to screen Japanese cargo plucked by cranes as high as 24-story buildings from the NYK Aquarius, a massive cargo ship. Semi trucks hauling the containers passed slowly between two government trucks mounted with radiation detectors that resembled white cabinets.

If the lights flashed, it would mean the equipment detected unusual levels of radioactivity in the cargo. A white light means gamma radiation was detected; a red light indicates neutron radiation.

But on this day, like every day thus far, no dangerous cargo was found.

Although the government agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, checks every cargo container coming from Japan since radiation began escaping from a damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, its officers have found no radioactively contaminated seafood, auto parts or electronics. The officers waved the Aquarius’s cargo through.

“To date, we have not held one container for contamination,” said Richard F. Vigna, a director of field operations for Customs and Border Protection. “There hasn’t been anything.”

The federal government operates a vast web of radiation screening at the nation’s seaports, airports and border crossings. Originally installed after the Sept. 11 attacks, the system is now also being used to make sure no contaminated Japanese imports reach store shelves.

The agency expects to keep working at the nation’s ports despite a government shutdown, if one occurs.

The heightened scrutiny increased for Japanese products immediately after the Fukushima nuclear plant’s troubles started. Typically, ship cargo goes through at least one round of radiation screening before being cleared to leave the port. But as a precaution, containers from Japan now get multiple checks.

The radiation screening program, which cost billions of dollars to put into effect, is operated by Customs and Border Protection. Radiation is just one concern for the agency, which also seizes drugs, detains illegal immigrants and eradicates invasive insects that stow away on incoming ships and airplanes.

But these days, attention is focused on the lights of the radiation detector. Should any contaminated products slip through, they could pose a health hazard, and would more than likely set off a panic among consumers, some of whom are already skittish about eating Japanese sushi. Only dairy products and produce from near the Fukushima plant have been banned outright by the Food and Drug Administration.

Scanning imports is a huge undertaking because of the volume of goods involved. Japan alone ships $120 billion in cars, electronics and other products to the United States annually.

Customs and Border Protection also has to balance the potential impact on commerce. Delays could mean lost money for shippers and the businesses that depend on supplies from Japan.

Michael Zampa, spokesman for APL, a container shipping company, said there were some initial backlogs in Los Angeles because of the expanded inspections, but they seemed to have eased.

“There was some delay, but it’s what you would expect with any new process,” he said.

The biggest excitement at the Port of Oakland came one day last week when a trucker ran over a traffic cone that then became stuck between his vehicle’s tires. The officers had to stop him to pull it out. Another driver balked at driving through the detectors because she feared that she would be subjected to radioactivity, as if she were going through an X-ray machine. The machines, in fact, do not emit radiation; they only measure it. Another driver took her place.

The offloaded containers get a second inspection when they leave the port. All trucks, no matter the origin of their cargo, must drive through radiation detectors resembling yellow gates at each terminal’s exit.

Earlier that day, in a nearby booth where officers monitor the port’s gate, an automated voice barked “gamma alert, gamma alert.” The equipment detected abnormal radiation on a passing truck. Although ominous sounding, such alerts are actually routine.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e56ff2dde4a50e793e6a29351747e42c

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