updated 8/29/2007 6:43:08 PM ET 2007-08-29T22:43:08

Fifteen years ago, a worker at the Russian nuclear research center in Podolsk smuggled more than three pounds of weapons-grade uranium out the doors over a period of weeks, determined to sell the material on the black market.

Police arrested the thief with the uranium on a railway platform in the city, about 35 miles south of the Russian capital, as he waited for a train to Moscow. But the incident was one of several in the former Soviet Union that set off alarm bells across the globe, warning that a new era in the annals of terrorism might soon begin.

On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Lugar and former Sen. Sam Nunn came to Podolsk to inspect $25 million worth of security measures at what is now Podolsk’s Luch Scientific and Industrial Association, paid for by the United States — improvements that one institute official said had made any future theft “impossible.”

Also with the help of the U.S., the nuclear processing facility has installed a new perimeter fence, metal and radiation detectors, a network of surveillance cameras, special locks, doors and other systems at the facility, all intended to track the location of every ounce of highly enriched uranium kept here.

“It is very difficult work” keeping track of the material, said Valentin Deniskin, deputy general director of scientific work at the facility. But, he added, the security measures would prevent any repeat of the 1992 theft. “It is physically impossible to remove these materials from this territory,” he said.

Officials praise security measures
The Podolsk facility has become a major center for diluting or “blending down” Russian-provided enriched uranium from other former Soviet states, turning uranium capable of being used in nuclear weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Since 1999, U.S. officials said, Luch has turned nearly 9 tons of bomb material into nuclear fuel that lights Russia’s cities and helps run its factories.

Nunn and Lugar are in Russia to mark the 15 anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Comprehensive Threat Reduction act, legislation that has helped former Soviet states destroy, dismantle and secure thousands of nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction.

After a tour of the facility, which was off-limits to reporters, Lugar congratulated institute officials. “You have constructed a very safe facility for crucial work,” the 69-year-old Indiana Republican said. “People around the world would be reassured if they could see what we viewed today.”

Nunn, 68, now the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, added that the safeguards at Luch contributed to “the security of the Russian people and the security of the world.”

David Huizenga, assistant deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, said there is still a threat that bomb-grade nuclear materials might be diverted or stolen from sites scattered around the former Soviet Union.

“These materials are still moving,” he told reporters after the visit.

U.S. seeks reduced role, but tight security
On Tuesday, Luch received a shipment of nearly 20 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a research reactor in Poland. In the next few months, working 24 hours a day, workers here will use chemical methods to transform the uranium into the raw material for fuel. The Department of Energy paid $490,000 for the work.

The United States and other Western nations, Huizenga said, are trying to shift more of the burden of financially supporting centers like the Luch institute onto the shoulders of Russia and its booming economy.

At the same time, nonproliferation experts are eager to ensure that the effort to enhance and maintain security at sites like Luch scattered around the former Soviet Union do not falter. The U.S. has estimated that there are about 600 tons of weapons-grade uranium stored around Russia. Some experts think that the figure is much higher.

Ivan Fedik, director of the Luch facility, recalled Wednesday how researchers and technicians at Podolsk — which once designed small nuclear reactors for use in the Soviet space program — faced economic privation in the days after the Soviet collapse.

“We are grateful to the American side that at this difficult time you came to our assistance,” he told Nunn and Lugar.

Having blended down the stockpile of highly enriched uranium stored on site, Luch technicians and scientists have started to process materials from outside of Russia, including Germany, Libya, Latvia and Poland, under contract.

Vera Sviridova, deputy mayor of Podolsk, told the visiting Americans that some residents were concerned when they read reports that Russian highly enriched uranium was being returned from Germany to Luch.

City officials, she said, reassured the public that the materials would be safely handled, processed and later shipped out to make fuel.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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