Nuclear Nonproliferation:

U.S. Efforts to Combat Nuclear Smuggling

GAO-02-989T: Published: Jul 30, 2002. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2002.

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Gary L. Jones
(202) 512-3464


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there have been 181 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials between 1993 and December 31, 2001. Nuclear materials can be smuggled across a country's border through a variety of means: they can be hidden in a car, train, or ship, carried in personal luggage through an airport; or walked across an unprotected border. U.S. efforts to help other countries combat nuclear smuggling are divided among six federal agencies--the Departments of Energy (DOE); State; and Defense (DOD); the U.S. Customs Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); and the U.S. Coast Guard. From fiscal year 1992 through fiscal year 2001, the six agencies spent about $86 million to help 30 countries, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, combat the threat of smuggling nuclear and other materials that could be used in weapons of mass destruction. Assistance provided by six agencies includes installing radiation detection equipment, helping countries improve their ability to control the export of goods and technologies that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, and providing other equipment and training to improve countries' ability to prevent nuclear smuggling. Although an interagency group, chaired by the Department of State, exists to coordinate U.S. assistance efforts, the six agencies do not always work in unison. The most troubling consequence of the lack of coordination is that DOE, State, and DOD have pursued separate approaches to installing radiation detection equipment at countries' border crossings. While U.S. assistance helps countries combat the smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive materials, serious problems exist with the installation, use, and maintenance of equipment which has undermined U.S. efforts. Customs relies on a three-part strategy to combat nuclear smuggling: training, targeting, and technology. Customs officials rely on radiation pagers--personal radiation detectors designed to be worn on a belt--as the primary equipment to detect nuclear material. However, DOE officials view the pagers as personal safety devices, not search instruments, and that they are not designed to detect weapons-usable nuclear material.

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