What, when it comes to scanning solutions, do ports want? It's easier to think about what they don't want - bottlenecks, unexpected manning costs, or a load of false alarms that trigger costly shutdowns. Felicity Landon reports on the latest developments
Moving away from conventional X-ray technology, VeriTainer has developed a sophisticated passive radiation detection device to measure the radiation and/or nuclear emissions coming out of the container.
What's also important is the location and data feedback system of the device, which VeriTainer says takes the responsibility for decisions based on scans away from the port or terminal operator, putting the onus where it should be - on customs or border protection personnel.
"Our primary product, the VeriSpreader, is an innovation in and of itself," says Mr Alioto, vice president sales at the west coast US-based VeriTainer.
"VeriTainer invented, patented, funded and has reduced to practice a spreader bar inlaid with a full array of passive gamma and neutron detectors for the purpose of thwarting nuclear smuggling.
Every container terminal is different but there is one common factor - the container must be lifted by a crane on and off the ship. "The VeriSpreader creates a very reliable layer of nuclear and radiological scanning for 100% of all cargo going in or out of a container terminal at its most critical point. Our technology is the very first equipment to handle the container on the inbound side and the very last on the outbound side. In both cases, we transact the scan in a manner that is completely seamless to the terminal operations. This is true for all portside container traffic, whether ship to truck, ship to rail, ship to barge or transhipment," says Mr Alioto.
He says the vast majority of pitfalls in container security are generated from security equipment and procedures that impact the fine-tuned efficiency of terminal operations. "Thus the VeriSpreader layer at the crane allows terminal operators and customs authorities to better position and maximise efficiency for the other layers of security they have in place."
The VeriSpreader has been through two rounds of testing at the Port of Oakland and proven itself to be "very robust and extraordinarily sensitive", says Mr Alioto. "Importantly, the VeriSpreader isotope identifies radiation when it is present. This allows authorities to differentiate harmless/expected radioactivity, as found in bananas or cat litter or ceramics, thus dramatically reducing nuisance alarms. Isotope identification also allows for measured response protocols based on different types of radioactivity. In other words, authorities will want to respond to unexpected radioactivity but they will also want to react sensibly to the level of threat indicated by the alarm."
VeriTainer says there are two points to emphasise in the search for optimum scanning solutions - operational efficacy and the industry point of view.
"Our executive team all came from the ports and shipping industry and we understand that you don't want to shut down the port for something that can be handled easily and quickly in a measured fashion," says Mr Alioto. "You don't want to be pushing the panic button when the spreader detects cobalt - although it's a pretty nasty substance, it is still unlikely to need the response you would have for plutonium."
And in any case, the industry needs to work together with the proper authorities to ease the burden of nuclear-free determination, he says. "It is important that we have a shared responsibility between government agency and industry. It is important that terminal operators, port authorities, steamship lines and even the leasing agents for capital equipment do their part in the business of nuclear or radiation determination, but it is equally important that we share the ultimate determination with local authorities.
"If you [the port operator] make that determination and you are wrong, you have exposed your company to enterprise risk. Our model delivers the decision support data from the detector subassembly on the spreader to the proper government or certifying authority. This way is seamless to the port; it moves the decision into the proper hands."
The most conservative projections suggest that another 20 countries will have joined the "nuclear club" in the next ten to 15 years - driven not by the arms race by but the energy race, points out Mr Alioto. "So the ability to have enriched uranium for power is going to spread, which means a spread of nuclear materials that can also be used to create a weapon. It is important to come up with security measures in a world where nuclear materials are spreading quickly."
Meanwhile, VeriTainer has filed a patent for its so-called "Manifest Comparison" solution which will compare the level of radiation from a container with the level that could be expected from its declared contents. "We believe that over time we will have a database of the spectrographic signature of cargo which can be compared with the manifest for that cargo," he says. "We expect that you would be able to use the radiation qualities of the cargo as part of the means for ensuring compliance with the manifest, as well as for security. There are some more obvious manifest comparisons that we can do right away, but we will not know how fine-tuned this can become until we gather a very large database over time."
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