The Department of Homeland Security and US companies are working together to create a "smart box" that can detect potentially dangerous radioactive material hidden among cargo in ship containers, US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security James Loy said in an interview.
He compared the research in this regard to the top-secret "Manhattan Project" that gave birth to the atom bomb during World War II.
"This is almost a mini-Manhattan project... I'm confident we have the resources", he said.
Loy said since almost 90% of the world's freight cargo is transported by sea, the United States feared that groups like al-Qaida could smuggle biological, chemical or nuclear weapons or material for crude radioactive ship containers transporting
anything from bananas to stereo systems.
"For the sake of security and prosperity, we must take steps to secure cargo," he said.
Loy was in Vienna to take part in a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on security measures.
He said there was no timeframe for developing a new generation of sensors and detectors but "within the next three years, we have to find ways of overcoming the current lack of controls - and along with it the foundation for global commerce."
"We need both the technological know-how and the political will to stop such trafficking"
deputy secretary of Homeland Security, USA
Loy said the project was among measures Washington was discussing with its partners in the Group of Eight most industrialised nations, the European Union and the OSCE, which groups 55 countries in North America, Europe and Asia.
The US currently had inspectors in more than 20 international harbours, including Hamburg, Genoa, Le Havre and Rotterdam, where they are working with local police in order to screen the nearly 20,000 cargo containers that arrive in US ports every day, he said.
But even such measures provided no guarantee against dangerous materials being smuggled from one country to another, he admitted.
"We need both the technological know-how and the political will to stop such trafficking," he said.