Defence minister says a smuggled dirty bomb or nuclear device is the biggest threat to North America
(Ottawa Citizen) OTTAWA – Defence Minister Peter Mackay says the greatest threat facing North America is international terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon onto the continent through a busy container port.
At an Ottawa conference of transportation security experts on Wednesday, Mackay raised the spectre of radicals detonating a crude radioactive dispersal device or a conventional nuclear bomb after smuggling it in one of the millions of cargo containers arriving annually on foreign ships.
“The greatest threat to North America right now is on the water,” he told the audience. “This is an area where, God forbid, if someone with ill intent decided to send a dirty bomb or some kind of a nuclear device into our country, this is an area where we are vulnerable.
“With the number of movements of containers coming into this country today, this is an area we have to be completely and extremely vigilant and rigorous in terms of security.”
His assessment of the maritime threat is the bluntest yet from a government minister and echoes concerns high-ranking U.S. officials have expressed publicly for years: al-Qaida has nuclear ambitions, is working to develop the nuclear capabilities to match, and just one of the containers arriving annually on North America’s shores could be a Trojan Horse harbouring the unthinkable.
Gary Gilbert, of the giant U.S. company Hutchinson Port Holdings, which operates 48 international ports handling 60-million containers annually, later suggested to delegates it may only be a matter of time before that happens.
“We have seen drugs come in, we have seen illegal aliens, we have seen weapons,” he said. “Why can’t it be a weapon of mass destruction?”
A nuclear device arriving undetected in a North American port could be shipped to virtually any point in the continent by rail or truck.
The U.S. is now ringing its major cities, and eventually much of the country, with radiation detectors.
Triggering a nuclear device within a major port would also cause devastation. The Port of Los Angles, for example, is the trans-shipment point for much of the state’s gasoline supply, as well as 3.3 million direct and indirect jobs.
The U.S. also has custom agents screening U.S.-bound containers at certain foreign ports.
But, as a 2004 government report to Congress noted, terrorists are expected to try to circumvent those efforts by acquiring a trusted shipping company to avoid suspicion, falsifying manifest data, infiltrating ports’ administrations and shipping from ports where there are no U.S. agents.
Security improvements are being introduced at major ports in both countries.
Federal authorities here for the past two years have been arming all major ports with stationary radiation detectors to better scan incoming container traffic.
“It is essential to Canada’s sovereignty and to the safety of our citizens that we continue to be vigilant in guarding our coastlines,” Mackay told the international gathering, sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada.
“As a trading nation, our economic well-being depends very much on this.”
By 2012, the U.S. wants all of the estimated seven-million cargo containers arriving on its shores annually to be scanned for hidden nuclear cargo, up from less than one per cent today.
But the economic well-being of ports, which handle the vast major of goods used by North Americans, is at stake, too.
“You can have the best security in the world, (but) if commerce doesn’t flow, your wasting your time. Those containers have to move,” said Ralph Tracy, head of the Los Angles Port Police.
He is responsible for guarding the largest port in the U.S. and third largest in the world.
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