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Container ships

October 26, 2004

A public radio commentary

Yesterday I walked through airport security in San Antonio and got thoroughly searched because I didn't want to take my shoes off. As the earnest security guard searched me, I wondered whether he realized there was a much larger security hole than the shoes of a middle-aged man in a south Texas airport. Specifically, I mean the global supply chain that feeds the American economy.

Today retailers like Wal-Mart no longer have real warehouses, and manufacturers like General Motors don't stockpile parts for their assembly lines. They use what's called "just in time" delivery of stock and parts. They rely on a global supply chain, which depends on the very prosaic, yet astonishing technology called a container.

These containers come in only two very precisely regulated sizes: A 20 foot length, and the more common "double size" which is 40 foot long - both are eight feet in height and width. It's hard to picture their size, but consider this: You could likely store all your household goods in a 20 foot container. Although they're large, picture these containers being handed off like footballs: Those coming from Asia, for example, stop in nearly twenty ports before arriving here. They move very quickly because that's how the shipper's make money.

One 40 foot container filled with shoes costs about 5,700 dollars to travel from California to Belfast. That may seem like a lot, but a 40 foot container holds precisely 12,384 shoe boxes - enough for a new pair of shoes every day for 24 years. This, of course, is only one container on a ship that holds up to 3,000.

Some 16 million containers travel around the world carrying 90% of the world's traded cargo. About 9 million arrive in the U.S. via our ports, or over our borders by truck and train.

In that astonishingly large number lies the security problem: With containers coming from all corners of the world, a terrorist could hide something like a dirty nuclear bomb.

To search one of these containers takes three workers about five hours, which makes it impossible to control the millions that go through our ports. In a few ports we have x-ray equipment that scans a container in 15 seconds - but only 4% are searched this way. To install the technology in every port would cost a half a trillion dollars.

Our only countermeasures are to develop cheap methods to detect the contents, and also to require twenty-four hour notice of the container's load, and its route. This would allow the U.S. to flag certain ones for special scrutiny.

So, if we think that the 9-11 terrorist attacks which shut down our air travel system stopped the country, think what would happen if the global supply chain -- all those container ships -- stopped moving for even a day. In short order xthe Wal-Mart shelves would empty and the assembly lines would halt.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises