The security of shipping containers carrying products overseas is a very sensitive issue internationally.  Since the smallest margin of error can lead to a devastating act of terror, policymakers want to do everything in their power to guarantee the safety of products shipped across the ocean.  The port of Los Angeles alone received 330,000 containers in January.  The risk of one dirty bomb getting past cargo inspections led the United States to pass legislation stating that every container entering the country must be scanned for weapons.  Is this practical, or is it an unreasonable expectation for security officials to execute? 

With the current system employed by the United States, the Customs Bureau inspects shipping manifests for any peculiarities and then inspects any concerning containers.  Since ships are loaded long before departure with many large containers, it is often very difficult and time-consuming to track down suspicious containers without delaying an entire shipment.

Another issue with the current system is that such a small proportion of the total number of containers is actually scanned and physically inspected.  It would still be quite possible for a dangerous container to make it through the system without ever being looked at closely.  This does not meet the goal of achieving zero errors through inspections.

Researchers from London Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business found that inspecting even 7% of containers would cause a delay for every container shipped overseas.  Achieving a 100% inspection rate would seemingly create unacceptably long delays throughout the entire transportation system.  Is there any alternative that could alleviate this problem without putting ports at unnecessary risk?

The researchers propose a system in which all containers are subjected to a minimum level of scanning.  This would serve as a screening process for more detailed searches of the most suspicious ones.  X-ray would be used for every container.  This would be modeled after the system used for screening suspicious passengers boarding international plane flights.  Based on tests in a variety of industries, they found that this approach created far fewer problems and delays.

If this recommendation is to be considered, the most important questions to consider pertain to the trust between countries.  Will countries trust their international counterparts to inspect containers bound for their borders?  Who will bear the costs of implementing the elaborate data management system that would be used? 

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