The United States has announced a deal with Russia to accelerate plans to prevent the smuggling of nuclear material across the former Cold War rival's borders, where it could be obtained by a rogue nation or terrorist group.
For the first time, the new agreement sets a timetable to complete the installation of radiation monitoring at the remainder of Russia's 350 border crossings by the end of 2011, six years ahead of schedule.
The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration announced that it would work together with Russia's Federal Customs Service to install radiation monitoring equipment and train inspectors at all of Russia's land and rail crossings, sea ports, and international airports.
"As our counterproliferation and anti-terrorism partnership with Russia grows stronger, the security provided for through this agreement will not only make Russia safer, but it will also increase the security of the United States and our allies in the region," NNSA's Acting Administrator Bill Ostendorff said in a statement.
Such cooperation between the United States and Russia has been ongoing since 1998 and has already equipped more than 170 of Russia's border crossings. Both countries will share the cost, with the total U.S. contribution since the Russian-operated program began expected to reach $140 million, however Russia will maintain operations in the future.
"This is a part of our overall strategy to detect, secure and dispose of dangerous nuclear material," NNSA's Nonproliferation head Will Tobey told ABC News.
"We think it will significantly advance our ability to detect and prevent transfers" of nuclear material," he added.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization co-founded by former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn who had pushed to prevent nuclear material trafficking while in Congress, has pushed for more thorough monitoring of Russia's borders. Today it applauded the deal.
"This is an important development in U.S. and Russian efforts to reduce the risk of dangerous materials being smuggled in or out of Russia," NTI's president Charles Curtis said in a statement.
The accelerated pace of the program illustrates the concern by American officials that nuclear material could fall into the wrong hands.
"There is a real sense of urgency" to secure the crossings, Tobey said.
During the Cold War an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union expanded both countries' nuclear arsenals. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the need for large nuclear weapons stockpiles has vanished. The emergence of threats from smaller transnational networks, such as terrorist groups like al Qaeda, has become a greater concern. The nuclear stockpiles from the Cold War now pose a risk that those groups might obtain some of that nuclear material and fashion it into a crude nuclear weapon to carry out a terrorist attack.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has feared that Russia's nuclear sites were inadequately secured. Russia's borders with rogue countries like North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon last fall, or its proximity to terrorist hot spots like Chechnya or Central Asia have amplified those fears.
"The threat we face comes from a number of sources, including insider threats from facilities but also terrorist activity. This equipment works in both directions, so it will protect Russia as well from terrorist activities," Tobey said.
To prevent smuggling of nuclear material, the United States seeks a multilayered defense system. The United States has worked with the Russians to develop a first line of defense, securing nuclear sites such as power plants and missile silos.
Work to secure that first line of defense is slated for completion by the end of 2008, according to Tobey.
"But it's also important to have a second line of defense at the border crossings to ensure that any illicit trafficking of nuclear radioactive materials is deterred and detected," Tobey added.
Russian authorities today intercepted technical documents that could have been used to create a weapon of mass destruction, the Interfax news agency reported Friday, citing the Federal Customs Service. The reports underlined the concern that nuclear technology and expertise from Russia might be sold on the black market. The FCS estimated the documents could have fetched $3.6 million.
In 2006, FCS documented 50,000 responses to radiation alarms in Russia, resulting in 480 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear material. Experts note, however, that in the vast majority of those instances the amounts found were too small to be of use in a weapon.