LOS ANGELES - Virtually all cargo containers entering U.S. ports will be scanned by radiation detecting equipment by the end of the year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.
However, more advanced equipment is needed to help speed the process and spot a potential nuclear device or dirty bomb, he said during a visit to the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The agency also expects to scan "virtually 100 percent" of all containers that enter through border points, he said.
"Countering the threat of nuclear terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is really the most important priority," Chertoff said. "We need to make the investments now to be able to counter the threat as time passes."
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It was Chertoff's third visit to the giant port complex, the gateway for more than 40 percent of all cargo container traffic entering the United States. A system is already in place at the giant complex to scan all of its incoming cargo, officials said.
Chertoff said his agency has been adding radiation portal monitors at major seaports and facilities and now has more than 1,000 of the devices in use.
Trucks carrying containers unloaded from ships pass through the detectors. If the machine finds signs of radiation, the container gets another scan and possibly an inspection by hand-held devices to help identify how much and what kind of radiation is present.
During his tour, Chertoff was shown a second-generation detector, or advanced spectroscopic portal.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are among several U.S. ports currently testing the devices, which are more efficient at distinguishing radiation from natural sources such as granite or cat box filler than from the type of radiation emitted by a dirty bomb.
Use of the newer detectors would speed the processing of cargo at the ports, Chertoff said.
Along with safeguarding the ports from attack, the Department of Homeland Security has started looking at how to restore trade flows into the U.S. if a major trade hub such as the Southern California ports was attacked.
The agency issued an interim report earlier this week as part of the Safe Ports Act. The report calls for alternative trade routes and methods to be implemented, Chertoff said.
"What it has to do with is making sure that we spend as little time as possible paralyzed by an attack," he said.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, said planning for the resumption of trade after a possible attack is key.
She noted that a 10-day labor shutdown of West Coast ports in 2002 cost the nation's economy between $1 billion and $2 billion a day, by some estimates.
"It took two months to restore normal traffic, tons of produce spoiled on the docks, and some of that traffic has never returned," said Harman, who serves as chair of a subcommittee on terrorism risks.
"Next time, it could be a terrorist attack or a series of near-simultaneous attacks along the West Coast. What is the recovery plan?" she said.
Harman questioned whether the ports are prepared to quickly clear the harbor if a large ship was sunk by terrorists or if the port was mined.
Chertoff also addressed questions about his agency's allocation of anti-terror grants to cities.
Earlier this week, the agency announced that the Los Angeles-Long Beach area would receive about $8 million less in funding this year.
That decrease led to complaints by some local officials.
Chertoff said neighboring cities were receiving $117 million, up from $98 million last year, including all types of grant programs.
A supplemental appropriation of $200 million would result in more money for the region in the next four years, he said.
Containers only occasionally pass through the Port of Olympia, but Chertoff's directive could apply here when containers arrive, said Ed Galligan, Olympia port executive director.