IMAGE: Customs and Border Protection officer
James Tourtellotte
A Customs and Border Protection officer inspects a truck at a port for radioactive material. Cargo containers bound for the United States from six foreign seaports will be screened for dangerous nuclear materials.
By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/7/2006 7:35:44 PM ET 2006-12-08T00:35:44

Beginning early next year, cargo containers bound for the United States from six foreign seaports will be screened for dangerous nuclear materials, the first phase in a program intended to expand the scrutiny of shipments before they reach American ports.

"No weapon of mass destruction is more formidable than a nuclear device or a radiological dirty bomb. It's critical to see that they don't make it into the U.S.," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in revealing details of the program Thursday.

Cargo containers destined for American ports will be driven on flatbed trucks past sensitive radiation monitors to detect possible nuclear hazards. And powerful X-ray machines will search for potential shielding intended to conceal radiological hazards.

When the detectors find potential nuclear materials, video images of the scans will be transmitted instantly to Homeland Security's National Targeting Center just outside Washington, D.C., for further analysis. If a physical search of the suspect container does not resolve the concern, it will be barred from U.S.-bound ships.

"When in doubt, we pull it out. Then we'll open it up and look," Chertoff said.

The devices will screen all U.S.-bound cargo at three of the six ports — Southampton, England; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; and Port Qasim in Pakistan.

At the other three — the port of Singapore; Port Salalah, Oman; and Port Busan in South Korea — only some U.S.-bound cargo will be screened for radiological material, "due to limitations imposed by the size and complexity of those ports," Homeland Security officials said.

Taken together, the deployments at the six ports will subject about 7 percent of U.S.-bound cargo to nuclear screening, they said.

"We are eager to expand this program as rapidly as possible," said Homeland Security's deputy secretary, Michael Jackson. "This is just one piece and one layer of a much larger system."

Sticking points: Money and permission
Homeland officials say two factors constrain expanding the screening program more rapidly —money and permission from the countries where the ports are located. The six-port pilot program will cost $60 million.

As for the diplomatic aspect, a State Department official said discussions are under way with "a number" of foreign nations to get permission to install more detectors.

Cargo is also scanned for radioactive material when it arrives. Figures from the department's Customs and Border Protection agency, which administers the program, said the screening rate is 81 percent at U.S. seaports and 94 percent at land borders, with a goal of raising both figures to 100 percent by the end of 2007.

Thursday's announcement was attended by representatives of foreign ports and shipping companies who support the enhanced security inspections.

Asked why foreign shippers would agree to adding another step in the shipping process, a U.S. official said, "They know what the consequences would be if something dangerous slips through and creates a tragedy here. Worldwide commerce would come to a halt and would be very hard to restart."

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