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Originally published May 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 10, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Port of Tacoma picked to test cargo detection

The Port of Tacoma has been chosen as a test site for a new radiation-detection program that would help the U.S. Department of Homeland Security...

Seattle Times business reporter

The Port of Tacoma has been chosen as a test site for a new radiation-detection program that would help the U.S. Department of Homeland Security screen cargo on trains before they leave a port.

The goal is to make ports across the country more secure without slowing down the movement of cargo, said Mike Milne, spokesman for the department's U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

New ways of detecting radiation and nuclear activity will be tested in Tacoma, and potentially used by ports across the country.

While the radiation-detection center was authorized by the federal SAFE Port Act of 2006, its funding depends on the supplemental spending bill that's tied up in a stand-off between Congress and President Bush over the Iraq war funding.

The new program will be detailed publicly at the Port of Tacoma Friday.

Ultimately, said Milne, "our goal is to screen 100 percent of all cargo that comes in, whether it leaves by train or truck."

The Port of Tacoma was chosen for the test site because more than 70 percent of its import containers move from shipping terminals to mainline railways. The railways then take the cargo to major markets in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Tacoma also has four intermodal yards, the areas where cargo is loaded directly from ships onto trains. By comparison, the Port of Seattle only has one terminal where containers are loaded onto trains.

Between 60 to 70 percent of the Port of Seattle's cargo leaves by rail for other cities, but a lot of that cargo is loaded onto a truck first and then put on a train.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma, as well as ports across the country, already use radiation monitors that check trucks leaving the ports.

Monitoring trains is more challenging because they don't pass through those check points at marine terminals.

Also, containers on trains are stacked densely on top of each other, making it harder to unpack the train when a radiation signal is detected, Milne said.

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Some of the containers leaving the Port of Tacoma by train are now checked manually.

"The challenge will be to devise radiation screening that will work in the various loading and unloading processes," Milne said.

Tracie Fukuhara, assistant port director for tactical operations with Customs and Border Protection, said as many as 50 people from various agencies in the Puget Sound region and the Department of Homeland Security could be working on the test site.

It's unclear when testing will begin or how long it will last, she said.

In a separate announcement Wednesday, the Port of Tacoma was awarded a federal grant of $11.6 million as part of $18.3 million in port security grants distributed across Washington. The Port of Seattle received $5.3 million.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle did not release firm plans for the funding. In general, the money will be used by ports for chemical detectors, cameras, security gates and access controls.

Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard: 206-464-2391 or kmeinhard@seattletimes.com

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