- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) — The Department of Energy is seeking a 30 percent increase in its funding for securing and disposing of weapons-grade radioactive materials in the former Soviet Union — in an effort to ensure the prospect of terrorists getting their hands on the ingredients for a lethal "dirty bomb" remains restricted to the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters.

The department's budget proposal for the 2004 fiscal year earmarks $1.3 billion to pay for the ongoing program to secure nuclear storage sites in Russia and get rid of tons of plutonium and enriched uranium left over from Soviet-era arsenals.

"Thanks to unprecedented levels of U.S.-Russian cooperation to control the proliferation of nuclear materials, we will complete the work of protecting some 600 tons of Russian fissile material by 2008, a full two years earlier than expected," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a news briefing in Washington. "In addition, the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency will intensify cooperation to keep radioactive materials — the kind that could be used in the construction of 'dirty bombs' — out of the hands of terrorists."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, concerns have grown that a terrorist organization or a hostile nation might attempt to steal or buy enough radioactive material to build either a small atomic bomb or a "dirty bomb" — a conventional explosive device capable of spreading radioactive material throughout a city or seaport, rendering it virtually uninhabitable for years.

The break up of the Soviet Union launched a joint venture by the United States and the former Soviet states to process such materials and consolidate them in well-guarded secure storage facilities, and Abraham said that while it was proceeding smoothly, the Bush administration was most anxious to speed up the process.

"We are looking in to ways to move these programs forward and to expand them," the secretary said.

Abraham said last week that the IAEA in the past decade had discovered around 200 attempts to smuggle radioactive materials worldwide.

The department's overall $23.4 billion budget request — a 25 percent increase in the past three years — includes $1.3 billion for non-proliferation programs, an increase of 30 percent over the previous year. In addition to its efforts in Russia, the department is asking for $6.4 billion to oversee the U.S. nuclear stockpile, an increase of $532 million over FY 2003.

The remainder of the Energy Department budget request is focused on the development of energy sources and improved efficiency that President Bush has called for in the past.

Along with research into the much-touted hydrogen fuel cell that is predicted to rival the internal combustion engine, the Energy Department is proposing to spend $1.6 billion on research into climate change and additional finding for and the Clean Coal Project and carbon sequestration research.

In addition, the budget predicts a boost in offshore oil development and the eventual opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to exploration by 2005 to help meet rising energy demand over the next several years.

"There is no question… that energy demand will be skyrocketing during this century," Abraham said, adding that the Energy Department was looking at potential energy sources that would be available to develop "well into the future."

(Reported by Hil Anderson, UPI Chief Energy Correspondent)

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