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To Counter Nuclear Smuggling, Officials Look to Mobile Detection Technology

U.S. Mission to International Organizations Vienna

A recently completed White House-led strategic review could shift priorities for a program intended to prevent the smuggling of nuclear-weapon material across international borders, a top U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration official tells Global Security Newswire.

Anne Harrington, deputy NNSA administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said in an interview that the broad assessment of the Second Line of Defense program will mean that its subsidiary Megaports program will be more selective about which international ports at which it chooses to invest in radiation-detection equipment.

Overall, there will be a greater emphasis on mobile -- rather than stationary -- detection systems, said Harrington, whose organization is a semi-autonomous part of the Energy Department.

In a wide-ranging interview, she addressed a number of issues, including why release of an environmental impact statement regarding the potential conversion of surplus weapons-grade plutonium to mixed-oxide reactor fuel has been delayed. The official also discussed whether the United States should institute an import ban on medical isotopes produced with highly enriched uranium, given concerns that Russia could undercut the market for isotopes produced with low enriched uranium.

“I can’t see any immediate reason to engage in a medical trade war with Russia over how they produce their isotopes,” Harrington said, noting Russia’s stated intention to eventually switch low enriched uranium.

Separately, the United States and Russia are working to craft implementing agreements relative to the new Cooperative Threat Reduction pact that the two nations announced in June, Harrington toldGSN. The deal replaced the so-called Nunn-Lugar agreement that had enabled U.S. efforts to secure nuclear weapons-related items in Russia since the end of the Cold War.

Harrington further discussed the potential for international nuclear-security standards following an International Atomic Energy Agency conference that took place in Vienna in July.

Edited excerpts of the recent interview follow.

GSN: Turning to the Second Lind of Defense, you said in March that the interagency review on that program had been finished and that it was now clearer what its role was going to be going forward. Can you talk a little bit now about what that role will be and how it will be similar or different to what it was previously?

Harrington: One of the things that came out of the review which I think was very interesting was a reassessment, for example, of the Megaports program and identifying a point of diminishing return in terms of which ports, which transshipment ports, really contribute the most to U.S. national security.

A transshipment port that, let’s say, primarily functions to take goods made in India and transship them to Australia maybe isn’t as valid a target for our program as a port, 30 percent of whose outbound cargo ends up in a U.S. port. That would be pretty important.

So we really refined that kind of analysis, in order to better target where our investments go. So that was, I think, a very useful step, and also revisiting some of the technologies that we were using and how we combine technologies to address trafficking in some particular geographic locations.

So [stationary] portals are very useful in certain places. Mobile vans are very useful in some places. Handhelds, backpacks -- there’s a lot of different detection capability available now and what we’ve done is adjust the mix of technology that we apply to any particular situation.

GSN: In the interest of cost-effectiveness?

Harrington: Not just cost-effectiveness, but mission effectiveness.

I was in the Middle East in July and it’s really hard to lay a road across the desert and say this is where all the traffic is going to go. You need a different, more flexible kind of capability in many countries where a stationary detector doesn’t give you.

And so modifying the mix of technologies actually makes us much more effective in terms of what we can deliver. We’ve seen this in practice in a number of places now, and so that’s going to affect future decisions on procurement and technology choices.

GSN: In light of these reassessments, do the previously stated goals of equipping 650 sites in 30 countries and 100 seaports by 2018 still stand, or have those been adjusted in light of the new assessment?

Harrington: Those have been adjusted, I’m not going to give you new figures because I might misquote them. But those have changed and, in fact, I’ve been reviewing some of the draft goals that we’re circulating right now. And, the focus is much more on the delivery of mobile capacity than stationary. And, as I’ve said, we’ve reassessed the Megaports target and we believe the new target is very defensible.

To read more of the interview, which touched on Nunn-Lugar, the Nuclear Security Conference, medical isotopes and other issues, read the full story on Global Security Newswire.

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