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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

350 Radiation Sensors To Prevent Smuggling

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia have agreed on a plan to accelerate installation of radiation detection devices at 350 Russian border crossings so a system to prevent nuclear smuggling is fully operational by 2011, U.S. officials said Friday.

"This announcement is a major cooperative step in counterproliferation work in Russia," which contains a major portion of the world's nuclear material, said Will Tobey, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the U.S. Energy Department.

"It will help us prevent smuggling into and out of the region," he said in an interview.

Russia identified more than 480 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive material in 2006. While U.S. officials said these cases were not believed to involve weapons-grade nuclear material, the number of cases underscores the scope of the problem.

Another U.S. official said the detection system could have an important application in efforts to prevent desperately poor North Korea, which last year tested its first nuclear device, from selling nuclear weapons or fuel.

"On the Russian border with North Korea we have detectors ... so we are able to monitor not only what is going into Russia, but also what might be coming out of North Korea," the official said.

North Korea also has land borders with China and South Korea.

Although U.S.-Russian ties are increasingly tense over many issues, Tobey said efforts to combat the threat of nuclear proliferation "is a bright spot of cooperation" with Moscow.

The two countries, which have the world's largest nuclear weapons arsenals, have been working to equip Russia's border crossings -- including airports, seaports, railways and land crossings -- with fixed portal radiation monitors and hand-held detection instruments since 1998.

From 1998 to 2006, installations were completed at about 176 crossing points, half by the United States and half by Russia.

Under the new agreement, that pace will be greatly accelerated and Russia will share the cost, Tobey said.

By the end of this year, 200 border crossings are expected to be outfitted with nuclear detection equipment, and all of the 350 Russian crossings are to be equipped by 2011 -- six years ahead of previous targets, he said.

Tobey said the U.S. share was about $140 million and the Russian cost, borne by the Federal Customs Service, was about equal.

One feature of the new agreement is Russia's pledge to maintain the detection equipment after installations are complete.

Training for Russian customs officials is part of the program.

U.S. experts have long been concerned that Russian nuclear technology -- fissile material and weapons -- could be stolen or sold from Russian facilities. The United States has spent millions of dollars to try to strengthen security at the facilities.

Tobey declined to speculate on why so few border detection installations were completed in the past.

Tobey said the Russians had become increasingly comfortable in working with Americans on the detection program and were increasingly focused on the nuclear proliferation threat.