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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foul-Ups Spoil Nuclear Safeguards

WASHINGTON -- U.S. efforts to control the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material in foreign countries are poorly coordinated and haphazardly administered, resulting in foul-ups that have left needed equipment idled in packing crates, sometimes for years, congressional investigators said.

Nonetheless, the investigators said in a new report, these international programs are in many cases more substantial than the safeguards at domestic borders, where U.S. Customs Service inspectors rely mostly on hand-held pagers to detect radioactive material.

"It's a pretty damning report," said Senator Pat Roberts, ranking Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. "Quite a few of us have been working on this for several years, and we had some suspicions. The report confirms them."

The study was produced at Roberts' behest by the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, and was scheduled for release Wednesday. The Washington Post obtained a copy in advance.

The study examines programs administered by six federal agencies that spent $86 million in about 30 countries between 1992 and 2001 to help them monitor and control the movement of radioactive materials that could be used in nuclear weapons or radiological bombs, known as "dirty bombs."

The assistance, mostly to Russia, former Soviet republics, and Central and East European countries, is used to buy detection devices and other equipment, technical assistance and training.

The investigators found that no agency coordinated the programs, resulting in the absence of an overall strategy, duplicate bureaucracies and marked differences in the quality of equipment given to different countries.

The report noted that the departments of Defense and Energy gave Russia and another country sophisticated monitors that could read neutron emissions-critical in detecting the presence of plutonium, a key component of nuclear weapons. The Department of State installed monitors in several other countries that did not have the capability.

The report also said the departments of Defense and Energy run two programs each and the two Department of Energy administrators don't communicate with each other even though they fund the same equipment. Other agencies that provide anti-smuggling assistance are Customs, the FBI and the Coast Guard.

"The current multiple-agency approach ... is not, in our view, the most effective way to deliver this assistance," the report said. "We believe the development of a government-wide plan is needed.''

The report also criticized the lack of bureaucratic follow-through on how the assistance was used once it had been delivered. The investigators said the Department of Defense reported early this year that much U.S.-supplied equipment either had never been used, had been used only to impress visiting Americans or was idle because it needed new batteries or repairs.

The report also noted that several Department of State-supplied vans with radiation detection equipment had been idled because they couldn't be operated in cold weather or because they were too expensive to supply with fuel.