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.
What Are the Costs and Other Challenges of Scanning and Imaging All U.S.-Bound Containers at Overseas Ports?
Exporters ship containers from hundreds of ports in other countries to the United States. The mandate to scan and image all inbound containers poses three challenges for CBP: cost, potential shipping delays, and possible refusal to comply by some operators and host countries. Although CBO examined the first two issues, full compliance will also require resolving the third issue, which is beyond the scope of this study.
CBO examined two options that 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 (see table below). 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. For comparison, CBO estimates that, using current procedures and equipment, CBP would spend about $1.3 billion over 10 years to image about 5 percent of inbound containers. Hence, the estimated cost of Option 1 is about 17 to 25 times the cost of CBP’s current scanning and imaging system. Paying for the more comprehensive system would require an increase of 17 percent to 25 percent in CBP’s total budget, a reduction in other spending by CBP, an increase in fees assessed on shippers, or some combination of those actions.
The range in CBO’s estimates reflects the different ways that CBP could scan and image containers. The higher cost would result from using current procedures and equipment. The lower cost would result if CBP increased the imaging rate for containers by adopting more efficient procedures or new technology that could be deployed in the next several years.
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 on U.S.-bound ships. 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.
If the federal government implemented 100 percent scanning and imaging at overseas ports, other countries might in turn require that DHS scan and image all containers leaving the United States. (CBP does not routinely scan or image containers that leave the United States.) Under that scenario, the total costs over 10 years for implementing 100 percent scanning and imaging overseas could roughly double, rising to $37 billion to $63 billion for Option 1 and $27 billion to $53 billion for Option 2.
What Are Some Options to Increase Imaging at U.S. Ports?
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), would cost $4 billion to $7 billion over 10 years.
What Are the Potential Effects of Increased Scanning?
Implementing the mandate under Option 1 or Option 2 would sharply increase the number of containers scanned and imaged; doing so also would increase the chances of detecting nuclear weapons or materials before they reached the United States. In addition, imaging every container would enhance CBP’s ability to detect more common contraband and shipping irregularities. However, to be effective, those options would potentially require more than 100 countries and hundreds of port operators to agree to scanning and imaging.
More imaging of imported containers at U.S. ports (Options 3–5) also would increase the chances of detecting nuclear materials or weapons but would avoid the diplomatic challenges associated with widespread imaging of U.S.-bound containers overseas. Increased imaging at domestic ports also could avoid the possible need for reciprocal scanning arrangements whereby the United States might have to scan shipments headed for other countries. However, scanning and imaging containers at U.S. ports rather than overseas ports could increase the chances that a weapon in a container could be detonated in a U.S. port before it is scanned or imaged.
All the options CBO examined involve imaging more containers. But how much those steps would reduce potential smuggling of nuclear weapons or materials into the United States is not clear. The options do not address other paths that smugglers might use, such as truck or rail at land crossings from Mexico or Canada, tunnels under the border, other types of commercial ships, private yachts, and aircraft. Those alternative paths could become more attractive if the United States sharply increased scanning and imaging of containers. No options considered here would address those other paths or other threats to the United States or its supply chain.