Cargo Screening Costs Could Skyrocket

By Jon Harper

Complying with a mandate to scan all incoming cargo containers at overseas ports before they reach the United States would cost the Department of Homeland Security an estimated $22 billion to $32 billion over a 10-year period, vastly more than current screening procedures, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Approximately 12 million shipping containers enter U.S. ports each year, CBO noted in a recent report, “Scanning and Imaging Shipping Containers Overseas: Costs and Alternatives.”

To protect against potential nuclear weapons threats, Customs and Border Protection — a DHS agency — scans all containers with a passive radiation monitor. Those deemed high risk — usually about 5 percent — are more closely inspected with X-ray or gamma-ray imaging systems. The agency opens and examines containers if the images suggest that the cargo is potentially dangerous.

To enhance security, lawmakers mandated that DHS use both radiation detectors and imaging systems overseas on all U.S.-bound containers before they leave port. The deadline has been extended multiple times and DHS now has until 2018 to implement the change.

The necessary equipment would have to be installed at the 453 foreign ports in 130 countries that load containers onto U.S.-bound ships. If the number of inbound containers grows at 2.5 percent per year, CBO estimates that implementing and operating such a system would cost between $22 billion and $32 billion in 2015 dollars over 10 years, depending on the type of technology used.

In comparison, if CBP continued to use current procedures to image about 5 percent of inbound containers at U.S. ports, the agency would spend only about $1.3 billion on screening efforts during the same 10-year time period, the report said.

Paying for the comprehensive system implemented overseas would require an increase of 17 percent to 25 percent in the agency’s total budget or an increase in fees assessed on shippers, the report said.

The cost of that approach could be much greater if other countries began to require the U.S. government to scan and image all containers leaving the United States, which DHS does not routinely do. Under that scenario, the total costs could roughly double, rising to $37 billion to $63 billion, CBO estimated.

“How much those steps would reduce potential smuggling of nuclear weapons or materials into the United States is not clear,” the report said.  

The planned security measures do not address other paths that smugglers might use, such as land crossings from Mexico or Canada, tunnels under the border or non-commercial ships, the report noted.

“Those alternative paths could become more attractive if the United States sharply increased scanning and imaging of containers,” the report said.

Photo: iStock

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security

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