By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA, Dec 18 (Reuters) - The United States must guard against a terrorist attack by tightening port security, with shippers paying fees to finance the increased scrutiny, a task force recommended on Monday.
The panel of government and business leaders, acting on behalf of the country's 361 commercial ports, called for new federal laws to ensure all cargo is inspected and said every regulated port should implement a risk-management plan.
Security officials fear any of the millions of shipping containers that arrive in U.S. ports each year could be used to conceal weapons such as a nuclear bomb.
"The federal government must realize the vulnerabilities that our ports face and work with us to identify new ways to reduce risks," said Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who set up the panel.
The group urged the creation of a national director of port and cargo security, to be appointed by President George W. Bush and to report to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The panel was set up in March after Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates, caused an uproar when it bought assets at six U.S. ports as part of its $6.8 billion purchase of British port operator P&O in February.
Lawmakers had concerns about a company owned by an Arab state running U.S. port terminals, forcing Dubai Ports World to agree to sell its U.S. operations to a unit of the insurance company American International Group <AIG.N>.
The Bush administration earlier this month announced a $60-million program to scan U.S.-bound cargo for nuclear and radiological material at ports in Britain, Honduras, Oman, Pakistan, Singapore and South Korea.
But two experts who have researched the building of an improvised nuclear device -- Peter Zimmerman of Kings College, London, and Jeffrey Lewis of Harvard -- said anyone hatching such a plot was likely to build the weapon on American soil.
Material as common as aluminum foil could shield the uranium from devices meant to detect radioactivity, they said on the same day the cargo scanning plan was announced.
In an attempt to keep intruders out of port facilities, the panel urged the continued development of a program to provide employees with credentials.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, whose state has repeatedly called for more federal support for its port security, said the ports of New York and New Jersey bring in some $100 billion worth of goods each year.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the site of the World Trade Center that was destroyed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.