Discretionary Spending

Function 750 - Administration of Justice

Scanning and Imaging More Shipping Containers Bound for or Arriving at U.S. Ports

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Each year, about 12 million shipping containers enter U.S. ports. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, concern arose that terrorists might use containers to smuggle weapons of mass destruction—particularly nuclear weapons—into the country. To reduce that threat, the federal government implemented several security measures. Among them, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), scans every container entering the United States by sea or land to detect radiation. CBP also identifies about 5 percent of all incoming seaborne containers as high risk, and it inspects those containers with X-ray or gamma-ray imaging systems. The agency opens and examines containers if the images suggest that the cargo is potentially dangerous or does not match the manifest.

In 2007, the Congress mandated that DHS use both radiation detectors and imaging systems to scan and image all incoming seaborne containers before they are loaded onto a U.S.-bound ship. That approach would shift the radiation scanning and nonintrusive imaging from U.S. ports to overseas ports, with the goal of detecting any serious threats before they arrive. The approach also would aim to image all containers instead of limiting the use of expensive imaging resources to high-risk containers. The law gave DHS until 2012 to fully implement this system, but the deadline has been extended three times and is now 2018. CBO examined five options that illustrate the cost and implications of meeting the mandate as well as alternative approaches to increase the scanning and imaging of containers.

The first two options would meet the requirement to scan and image 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers. Under Option 1, CBP or foreign partners would install scanning and imaging equipment at the 453 foreign ports in 130 countries that load containers onto U.S.-bound ships. Conducting that scanning and imaging would cost, on average, $150 to $220 per container, which the U.S. government could either pay or recoup through fees assessed on shippers. If current flows of inbound containers grow at 2.5 percent per year, implementing and operating such a system would cost between $22 billion and $32 billion in 2015 dollars over 10 years, CBO estimates.

Option 2 offers a cheaper way to meet the mandate: Focus on the busiest overseas ports. Under that option, CBP or foreign partners would install scanning and imaging equipment at the 121 foreign ports that load 97 percent of all containers bound to the United States. Shippers would have to route the remaining 3 percent of inbound containers to those ports. That option would cost $12 billion to $22 billion over 10 years—about $10 billion less than Option 1. The cost to scan and image a container would range from $80 to $150.

CBO examined three lower-cost options that would increase imaging for containers arriving at U.S. ports rather than meet the mandate’s requirement to image and scan all of them overseas:

  • Doubling the fraction of containers imaged as they enter the United States to about 10 percent (Option 3) would increase costs by $1 billion to $2 billion over 10 years.
  • Raising the imaging rate to 100 percent of containers at all 74 U.S. ports that receive international containers (Option 4) would increase costs by $4 billion to $8 billion over 10 years.
  • Restricting imaging to the busiest 32 U.S. ports, representing 99.7 percent of all inbound containers (Option 5, which is similar to Option 2 for the busiest overseas ports), also would cost $4 billion to $7 billion over 10 years.