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Agency Warns of Theft Threat of Nuclear Materials

Washington, March 13 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. Government's General Accounting Office says nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union are "highly attractive to theft" because of incomplete inventory records and antiquated safeguards.

The report was prepared for the U.S. Congress and released on Tuesday.

"Much of this material is outside of nuclear weapons, is highly attractive to theft, and the newly independent states may not have accurate and complete inventories of the material they inherited," the report said.

The agency said there are about 1,400 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union. It said the stores are increasing as missiles are dismantled in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine.

The report said the former Soviet nuclear facilities "rely on antiquated accounting systems that cannot quickly detect" the loss of nuclear materials and lack modern equipment to safeguard them.

The accounting office said the seizure of nuclear materials in Russia and Europe has increased concerns about theft, but it also said there is no evidence of a black market for weapons-grade nuclear materials, .

The U.S. has set aside funds to help the four countries that inherited Soviet nuclear weapons dismantle them. The U.S. is also providing aid to improve security around nuclear storage sites in the former Soviet Union to guard against theft.

Under one program, the U.S. agencies helped install a new fence, sensors, video surveillance, a metal detector, an alarm and a computerized accounting system at Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, the GAO reported.

The U.S. Defense Department obligated 59 million dollars and spent about 4 million dollars between 1991 and 1995 to improve security at the sites. The U.S. Energy Department spent 14 million between 1994 and 1995.

President Bill Clinton has asked the U.S. Congress for 400 million dollars for seven years to continue funding the security program.

However, the accounting office report said the inability to determine exactly how many sites are involved and the lack of accurate records made it difficult to determine the true cost of the program.