U.S. customs inspectors could be stationed by this fall at the largest seaport in the Bahamas, where the Bush administration is hiring a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo, a senior customs official said.

Any such agreement will require approval by the Bahamian government. Diplomatic talks are expected to begin soon to put agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the sprawling Freeport Container Port, just 65 miles from Florida’s coast.

“We’re now looking at going over there to begin discussions,” Jayson Ahern, assistant customs commissioner for field operations, told The Associated Press on Monday. “It does require bilateral discussions with another country, but we’re cautiously looking at being there by the fall.”

A story last week by the AP described a no-bid, $6 million contract the administration is finalizing with Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. in the Bahamas, and generated criticism of the arrangement from some U.S. lawmakers and security experts.

The administration has acknowledged the deal represents the first time a foreign company will be involved in running sophisticated U.S. radiation-detection equipment at an overseas port without American customs agents present.

Ahern was expected to testify at a Senate oversight hearing Tuesday on radiation detectors in the United States. On the eve of the hearing, Ahern said the Homeland Security Department intended to station U.S. inspectors in the Bahamas by spring under its port-security program, called the Container Security Initiative, but plans were delayed.

Some lawmakers said negotiations were overdue. The senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee said the decision was “absolutely the right thing to do.”

“If foreign governments and operators do not oppose U.S. security programs, then the Department of Homeland Security should be doing everything it can to deploy teams and secure foreign ports,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. “Unfortunately, all I see happening in this administration is feet-dragging and action only after bad decisions have been made public.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. said: “The only thing missing from the advanced security formula in the Bahamas was the presence of U.S. customs agents. Now that it appears they will be added, it will be a large step forward for port security.”

The pending diplomatic talks were confirmed by John Meredith, the group managing director for Hutchison’s port subsidiary, which runs the Bahamas port.

“They are getting close to fixing up a deal between the Bahamas and the U.S.,” Meredith told the AP. “If they want to put American people out there to have a look at it, that’s fine. But people should respect also that you’ve got to have trusted partnerships, both with the private sector and with foreign governments.”

The Bahamas contract is close to being finalized by the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department. It has said employees of Hutchison _ the world’s largest ports operator _ will drive the towering, truck-like radiation scanner at the port under the direct supervision of Bahamian customs officials.

Any positive reading would set off alarms monitored simultaneously by Bahamian customs inspectors at Freeport and by U.S. customs officials working at an anti-terrorism center in northern Virginia.

Under the contract, no U.S. officials would be stationed permanently in the Bahamas with the radiation scanner. Separately, there are no U.S. customs agents checking cargo containers in Freeport under the U.S. customs port-security program.

Last week, Thompson said he was concerned there will be inadequate oversight in the Bahamas. Citing the AP story, Thompson sought assurances from the administration over the no-bid contract and asked when U.S. customs inspectors might be sent there permanently.

Hutchison Whampoa is among the shipping industry’s most respected companies and was an early adopter of U.S. anti-terror measures. But its billionaire chairman, Li Ka-Shing, also has substantial business ties to China’s government that have raised U.S. concerns over the years.

© 2006 The Associated Press