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Saturday, May 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Port safety screeners tackle moving targets

Seattle Times staff reporter

TACOMA — More than $35 billion in overseas goods pass through the Port of Tacoma each year, crammed into cargo containers that should be screened for dangerous nuclear and radiological material as they are loaded from ships onto trains and sent across the country.

It would be a time-consuming process that would force supply slowdowns with economic consequences in Tacoma and at similar ports throughout the country.

Now, with the help of $5 million in federal funds and cooperation from various federal and local groups, the Port of Tacoma will be a testing ground for new technology that would scan the huge steel cargo containers without stopping the trains.

The project's managers intend to take existing scanning technology and create a physical structure that can scan the containers for everything from a dirty bomb to a nuclear weapon sometime after they are taken off the ships but before the trains roar down the track.

"You can't stop the trains," said Port of Tacoma spokesman Michael Wasem. "It plugs up the entire inland transportation system."

The project was announced Friday at a joint news conference that included U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Port of Tacoma officials, Customs and Border Protection agents, representatives of the longshoremen's union, the Department of Homeland Security and the nation's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.

"If we want to secure our ports, we have to work to develop and test new technologies and processes. We know that current technologies that are effective for trucks do not necessarily work for trains," said Murray, who has advocated increased port security and whose legislation SAFE Port Act of 2006 provides funding for the endeavor.

She and port operation directors estimated there would likely be a working design that would serve as a model to ports throughout the U.S. within the year.

The Port of Tacoma has four on-dock intermodal yards where cargo is offloaded and trains are pieced together, loaded with the containers and sent east.

It handles more than $35.6 billion in goods, nearly 2.1 million 20-foot equivalent container units or 18.9 million short tons in a year, and transports more than 70 percent of its cargo to the Midwest, according to port statistics.

Those involved in the project don't yet know what the device will look like or exactly how it will work. The work that goes on in the intermodal yards is tightly synchronized, and project managers said they expect to have to try a lot of different ideas to find one that works, said Robert Collins, the port's director of Intermodal Services.

Among other challenges facing the multi-agency creators is a way to reduce the false positives for radiation that are emitted by some innocuous cargo, such as bananas, ceramics and flat-screen televisions.

Also this week, the Port of Tacoma was awarded a federal grant of $11.6 million as part of $18.3 million in port-security grants distributed across Washington. The Port of Seattle received $5.3 million.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle did not release firm plans for the funding. In general, the money will be used by ports for chemical detectors, cameras, security gates and access controls.

Murray said money for enhanced port security is long overdue, in part because early anti-terrorist efforts and funding were directed mainly at airports.

"This is a great step forward for safer ports," said Murray, "and because of that, a safer country."

Times staff writer Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard contributed to this report.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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