Dirty Bombs and Offshore Ports

container ship

Published Jul 17, 2016 3:24 AM by Marco Pluijm

On July 7, a joint hearing was held of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation and the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the Committee on Homeland Security, regarding the examination of “the Maritime Nuclear Smuggling Threat and other Port Security and Smuggling Risks in the U.S.”

One of the main topics at this hearing was the risk of terrorists smuggling a dirty bomb into the U.S. and detonating such device in a densely populated, urbanized area. Which, following the outcome of this hearing, is earmarked as a considerable risk.

The topic is not new. In the past various plans have been developed by the U.S. Government and others for offshore ports as an option to intercept these and other vicious devices, before they can reach the shorelines of the U.S. 

One of the major obstacles for implementation of such offshore ports was the substantial investment - and operational costs, with the result that the plans were shelved. 

The development of offshore ports for commercial reasons has made considerable progress over the past five years. And has reached the stage where commercial viable solutions have come within reach. Thanks to improvement of the container transshipment terminals themselves, use of natural materials and related construction methods and most, and for all, the need for deep water ports in order to accommodate the ever increasing size of the ocean going, long haul container vessels.

This is especially now the case after the Suez Canal expansion has come into operation. The largest container vessels (up to 19,500 containers) are now able to sail direct from the Far East to the U.S. East Coast where the ports just have updated their facilities to receive the New Panama Canal container vessels, able to carry 12,500 containers. The gap in capacity requirements is obvious, and so is the gap in efficiency and economic losses.

This, together with the risk of smuggling a dirty bomb into the U.S., might be a reason to re-evaluate the U.S. offshore port strategy and update it according to the latest developments.

An important element in such an assessment is the question about 100 percent scanning and the matter of to what extend this can be done adequately in the country of origin. The U.S. policy is currently now relying on. Reality teaches us that there are always gaps in such an approach.

An adequate offshore port (system) can be an essential element in intercepting vessels from such areas with high risks. Vessels identified as such can be directed to one or more of these offshore hubs where 100 percent screening can take place in an efficient and customer friendly environment before being allowed to continue their journey into U.S. waters.

 Allocating these facilities to incoming vessels only would eliminate the need for 100 percent screening of outgoing vessels which might be a requirement from other countries in response to what would otherwise be a 100 percent incoming screening policy.

Adequate offshore port concepts are ready to move to the next stage of detailed design on the basis of sound economic checks and balances. Taking into account all functionalities, these ports could include avoidance of the threat of a dirty bomb being smuggled into the U.S. and consequential damages. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.