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The containers have revolutionized shipping

  • "Sea can" is the unflattering term used by merchant seamen to refer to those ubiquitous 40-foot intermodal Prefabricated Houses we see being offloaded at ports large and small, or being hauled by semi trucks across America's interstate highway system, or loaded on those railroad cars you see parading by you while you are waiting in your car at a rail crossing.

    These standardized steel boxes (there are actually two sizes, the more common 40-foot length, and a pint-sized less-frequently used 20-foot length) are called "intermodal" because they can easily be moved by ship, train, or truck without unpacking or tampering with the materials sealed inside. The containers have revolutionized shipping. In the bad old days, a half-century ago, wooden crates used to ship articles by sea were far too large to be put on a truck, so the materials inside had to be taken out on the wharf and repacked for surface transport -- with predictable losses to pilfering and damage. No more.

    Though thieves can open intermodal containers fairly easily, they have seals that reveal tampering when broken and the containers usually are kept under surveillance both in transit and while waiting in storage yards. They have a good track record and they are easy to insure. The first person to open the box sealed in a warehouse in China or Korea more than likely is the intended recipient in Europe or America, and the container will have made the trip on truck, rail, and ship by simply being moved from one form of transport to another like a child's building block, without ever being opened. Or inspected.

    Standardized shipping containers were probably the idea of a long-forgotten military planner early after World War II, perhaps as late as the early 1950s. The U.S. military began using primitive versions about then, but it was a private sector entrepreneur, Malcolm McLean, along with an engineer, Keith Tantlinger, who developed the modern dimensions of the containers along with the clever corner castings that allow these versatile containers to be stacked safely seven units high on ships and easily moved about with special cranes. The largest ocean vessels can now carry some eight thousand 40-foot containers, and larger ships are planned. A container filled with $100,000 worth of merchandise and weighing many tons can easily be shipped from some obscure corner of the Far East to anywhere in the United States for about four thousand dollars, a transport tariff of only 4%. Intermodal shipping is a bargain.

    The equivalent of some 70 million 40-foot containers move about the world every year filled with cargo (this does not include the movement of empty containers). About two per cent of them are inspected in the United States, far less in other countries.

    Intermodal containers have proved enormously popular in ways that could not have been foreseen by their inventors. Since they require enormous energy to melt down when their useful life is over, and because they are eight feet high and can easily accommodate human beings standing up, they are often retrofitted into shop fronts, small houses, computer data centers, and other "buildings" that require sturdy metal walls.

    And there are yet other uses to which "sea cans" might be put, deadly uses, including the anonymous transport of terror weapons.

    "The consequences of a terrorist incident using a container would be profound," says Robert Bonner, a Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. "There is virtually no security for what is now the primary system to transport global trade. If terrorists used a sea container to conceal a weapon of mass destruction and detonated it on arrival at a port, the impact on global trade and the global economy would be immediate and devastating. All nations would be affected. No container ships would be permitted to unload at U.S. ports after such an event."

    The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that a nuclear device about the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima in World War II (about 17 kilotons) detonated at a large American seaport would kill between 50,000 to one million Americans and destroy between $150 billion to $700 billion of wealth through direct loss of property and trade. Indirect costs might add another $1.5 trillion to the bill. This suggests that a nuclear bomb set off in the Port of Los Angeles or New York/Newark harbor would hit the economy with about $2 trillion in losses, beyond the cost of lives lost. For comparison, the 9/11 disaster is thought to have cost the United States about $500 billion. How would the rest of the world react? Many believe international trade would shut down completely. A world-wide recession might well result.

    Even scenarios that do not involve the explosion of a device would be near-catastrophic A respected New York strategic consulting firm (Booz Allen Hamilton) conducted a "Port Security War Game" exercise to try to quantify the financial impact of closing down transportation systems. In the game, participants were presented with the discovery of a pair of "dirty bombs" (a dirty bomb is not a real nuclear device, but rather radioactive material mixed with conventional explosives designed to spread nuclear detritus over a large, inhabited area) in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. The bombs were defused in time. In response to the threat, the players ordered the two ports closed for three days. As further evidence unfolded, all U.S. ports were shut down for a week and a half. The economic impact of the port closings was dire: Calculated to be $58 billion, which resulted from a 90-day backlog of containers, spoilage, sales losses, and manufacturing slowdowns.

    Preventing such scenarios by stopping terrorists from using intermodal shipping containers to smuggle nuclear materials into the United States will probably require tackling the problem from more than one vantage. The most important is probably the Container Security Initiative, which performs inspections of containerized cargo in a four-part program. First, using intelligence to target containers that pose a threat; second, pre-screening those containers; third, developing better detection technology that can operated outside the container; and fourth, developing tamper-proof containers.

    Many observers are afraid, however, that efforts to improve the safety of the gigantic intermodal shipping industry won't improve until a "near-miss" puts the largely anonymous granny houses business on the front pages of American newspapers. For the moment, U.S. resources are focussed almost exclusively on the airline industry.