ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Japan is one of America's largest trading partners. But businessmen and consumers alike are starting to wonder what effect radiation from the damaged nuclear reactors might have on Japanese exports. The Coast Guard and ports along the West Coast, from San Diego to Seattle, say consumers shouldn't think twice about the cargo that's arriving now.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.
KAREN GRISBY BATES: It takes about 10 days for a cargo ship to get from Japan to the U.S. So ships that will arrive early next week left as radiation first began leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. There's little risk they're contaminated. The ports nearest the damaged reactors are closed. That means anything arriving on U.S. shores is coming from farther away.
The U.S. Coast Guard is in charge of detecting radiation on cargo ships. Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neil says, so far, the Coast Guard has seen no cause for worry.
Lieutenant Commander CHRIS O'NEIL (U.S. Coast Guard): I think the first thing that everybody has to recognize is, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said, we in the U.S. do not expect to see radiation at a harmful level reaching the United States from the damaged Japanese nuclear power plants.
BATES: Nor does the Coast Guard anticipate an interruption in trade.
Lt. Com. O'NEIL: At this time, we haven't identified any risk to shipping. We haven't identified any risk to cargo. But we have processes in place to ensure the safety and security of the global maritime supply chain.
BATES: O'Neil says the 5,000 miles between Japan and the U.S. are a big help. The danger of nuclear contamination lessens the farther you get from the accident site.
That's good news to the Port of Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).
BATES: This is the busiest container port in the country. Its 43 acres of waterfront handled more than $230 billion worth of cargo last year, and Japan is one of the port's biggest customers. Its ships regularly drop off everything from cars and car parts to consumer electronics.
Chief Ron Boyd is director of port security. He says monitoring for radiation here is nothing new.
Mr. RON BOYD (Chief of Los Angeles Port Police): It's comforting to know that, again, this wasn't something that was set up as a result of the events in Japan. But we've got a steady-state system where every container is examined, and we have a process.
BATES: That includes random and scheduled screenings, and another process that's a little more organic.
Mr. BOYD: Most of the law enforcement personnel, both at the federal and local level, also wear personal protective devices to detect radiation in the atmosphere.
BATES: Even a slight jump on those PMDs or personal monitoring devices means extra inspections until the port determines the cause of the spike. But Boyd says those inspections aren't the first line of defense.
Mr. BOYD: Some of the process, quite frankly, starts overseas, before those vessels start to make the voyage, so that we can also benchmark the level of activity that's happening on the vessel prior to leaving its port of departure and then once it starts to enter our waters.
BATES: Both Boyd and the Coast Guard's Chris O'Neil said Japanese ships that were en route to the U.S. when the accident happened pose no threat. And anything that left afterward is being carefully monitored. There are plenty of checkpoints along the way to raise the alarm if radioactive cargo is detected in the coming weeks as cargo ships begin to arrive from Japan.
But that doesn't mean people who live near large ports, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, aren't uneasy. When people feel they're in danger, public perception counts almost as much as reality.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.