Good Company

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shipping and Port Security: Drugs and Radioactive Material

Port of Genoa
Interesting book review from the Wall Street Journal on drug smuggling Book Review: I Am the Market. The bottom line appears to be that familiar theme: "If it is financially lucrative enough, drug smugglers will find a way."

This book highlights some of the ways.

Which ought to be a warning about smuggling other stuff.

Recently a reader (thanks, Russ!) sent along an article about a shipping container full of radioactive stuff sitting on a pier in Genoa, Italy. See Italy Seeks Way to Dispose of Radioactive Container:
Italian authorities are looking for a way of disposing of a container containing radioactive material that has been sitting on the dock at the port of Genoa for more than six months.

Coffee bags in container -what else could be in there?
According to news reports, the container arrived from Saudi Arabia on July 20, 2010, but later yard workers discovered it was radioactive. One report said the container held radioactive cobalt.

Italian security officials have approached the problem warily because it is unknown whether or not the container is a terrorist weapon. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., security officials have warned about a “nuke in the box,” a nuclear or radiological weapon delivered through the supply chain.
This is not a new problem - back in 2005, a shipment was returned from Italy to Morocco because it tripped radiation dectectors.

The key question, however, is that implied in a report found at Seaport Security News:
Last year, a shipping container made its way from Saudi Arabia to a dock in Genoa, Italy where it sat idle for several days until dock workers discovered by accident during a “technical review” of the terminal that the container was radioactive. It has been six months since the radioactive container was discovered and it still has not been deactivated. They are currently exploring different methods to deactivate the container, including a robot due to the unknown threat of the materials. They are estimating that the cost of remedying this situation will be €800K, perhaps €1M.
How did this stuff ever make in onto a ship in Saudi Arabia?

Suppose the worst fears of the Italian authorities were realized - that this container contains some sort of "dirty bomb" - and that the trigger was not set for Italy, but for some vital marine chokepoint or other area where it could inflict mass casualties and enduring radiation.

Port of Genoa
Take a look at the original Italian article on this container (Google translation):
A container of radioactive 100 meters distance deliver values five times higher than the "natural background" (those that normally are found). E 'detention in port of Voltri since July, when the alarm went off during a technical review of the Terminal: The Indicators of instruments dedicated to the research of radioactive material went wild, the place was called the fire department and the experts of the Company Regional. The container was isolated, away from the heart of port activities and placed on a pier of the "Sixth Form", pending remedial measures - was guaranteed - would have been very rapid. After six months of strikes and disputes, and city workers are still waiting.

The Technical Unit Complex Regional dell'Arpal has always ensured that the radioactive emissions are not high, but has suggested "appropriate care". It was the Special Unit of Bacteria-Chemical-Radioactive firefighters to identify the nature of the material: cobalt-60, coming from a "source" used by health care facilities to cobalt, or from industries that perform nondestructive testing on metals, ie radiographs. The container had arrived by ship to Genoa from Jeddah - Saudi Arabia - with a stopover in the port of Gioia Tauro. C Official Content ferrous materials, and was landed at the Vte July 14.
Cobalt 60 has a 5 year half life (see Testimony of Dr. Henry Kelly, President, Federation of American Scientists before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2002), and may be a lesser concern than some other radioactive materials, but it is still a concern.

Cobalt 60 Cancer Treatment Device
Cobalt 60 is used in machines designed to kill cancer by focusing the radiation. When these machines are old, they are sometimes scraped without removing the Colbalt 60. See here.

So the real question is - why did it take so long to detect the radiation? What does this say about port security in Saudi Arabia? Were the shipping documents falsified? Was anyone paid off to allow this shipment? What other shipments of hazardous materials would a small bit of Bakeesh allow to go unchecked?

Once again, drug smugglers may help us get a handle on what doors need to be closed to prevent the shipping of potentially terrorist materials.

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