Hi-tech help to find terror weapons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 12:00am

Hong Kong Customs chiefs are to buy a hi-tech system to screen shipping containers for nuclear and chemical materials used in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

The move comes as tension mounts in the region over the threat posed by North Korea's decision to reactivate its nuclear programme.

A top SAR Customs official described it as a step to 'enhance our capability to detect nuclear bombs and other radioactive substances'.

But officials have declined to say if they are acting on intelligence information that such materials may be shipped through Hong Kong - the world's busiest container port.

The purchase is part of the SAR's bid to comply with requirements of the US-led Container Security Initiative (CSI), which will see a special team of five US Customs officers stationed in Hong Kong early next year as part of Washington's war on terrorism.

On September 23, Hong Kong and US Customs signed a Declaration of Principles which allowed unprecedented collaboration between the two jurisdictions on counter-terrorism.

The provisions of the scheme are due to come into force on February 3, and are causing concern in the shipping industry about companies' abilities to comply.

Hong Kong has had equipment capable of detecting nuclear materials since the mid-1990s, but the latest move will significantly upgrade its capability to detect both nuclear and chemical agents, Customs officers say.

Speaking at a shipping industry conference in Hong Kong this month, Assistant Commissioner (Boundary and Ports) of the Customs and Excise Department Lawrence Wong said: 'We are now in the process of procuring a set of powerful radiation detectors for enhancing our capability to detect nuclear bombs and other radioactive substances.

'Should some terrorist acts throw up turmoil in our port, the massive loss to the economy would be unimaginable.'

Despite the imminent arrival of the American CSI team, only Hong Kong Customs officers will be allowed to carry out searches.

A spokesman for the Customs and Excise Department said it had procured multi-functional portable contraband detectors last year that gave them the ability to detect narcotics, explosives and chemical weapons such as nerve and blister agents.

'We are in the course of upgrading our existing mobile X-ray vehicle scanning system by installing an additional radiation threat-detection system. Other than the normal X-ray scanning function, the detection systems, each worth about $900,000, are capable of detecting neutron and gamma radiation,' he said.

'It is the latest technology available on the current market and is expected to come into operation by early 2003.'

The department did not say how many kits it was buying.

Customs has also secured funding from the Legislative Council to buy two additional mobile X-ray machines capable of detecting radiation.

Many in the Hong Kong shipping industry are worried about meeting the CSI February deadline and the cost of upgrading their technology in line with the new system.

A Customs spokesman said: 'It is envisaged that the commercial players will experience an increase in operating costs by upgrading their IT systems during the initial implementation of the CSI.

'However, we believe that upgrading IT systems will be a merit to these commercial players by helping them improve their operational efficiency, increase their productivity and enhance their competitiveness in the long run.'

He added that the government was concerned about how the cost of the upgrades would be borne by small and medium-sized enterprises and had doubled the loan guarantees available to them to $2 million.