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Border training helps reduce dangerous smuggling

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Stopping the traffic of components, materials and commodities used to make weapons of mass destruction could reduce the number of weapons produced.

That's the intent of a joint program between the U.S. Customs Service and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that provides classroom and hands-on training to foreign border guards, customs patrol and frontier police. The classes teach attendees how to spot red flags that should trigger a search, as well as how to use specialized technology to detect and identify items used to make nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

The program is supported by U.S. Customs, State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Energy and other government agencies. It has provided training to personnel from countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1997.

Students spend half their time in the classroom learning to detect, identify, interdict and investigate the illicit movement of items that may be used for weapons of mass destruction. "Our students work with materials and commodities that may be used to make weapons of mass destruction, and they work with weapon components and missile delivery systems," said William Cliff, program supervisor.

Topics include biological weapons like anthrax and how it spreads and chemical precursors for manufacturing weapons such as mustard agent. Students learn to recognize the signature of various radioactive isotopes, including special nuclear materials like weapons grade plutonium and uranium, industrial and medical isotopes.

Field exercises, held at the DOE's Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) training center, help students sharpen their intuition about smugglers and hone identification and response skills. Students are confronted with situations similar to those they may encounter on the job in their home countries.

Two technologies used in the field exercises, the Ultrasonic Pulse Echo and the Materials Identification System (MIS), were developed at the Laboratory. The ultrasound device, a hand-held gun that transmits ultrasonic pulses and detects return echoes, can determine the contents of a sealed container and is sensitive enough to distinguish between diet and regular Coca-Cola. The device helps users find objects or compartments in liquid-filled containers and solid materials, including shipping drums and metal ingots.

MIS allows inspectors to touch a piece of metal with a probe and compare it with a database of known materials. MIS can identify material that may be used for nuclear weapons applications so border guards can prevent the shipment from reaching its destination. Both MIS and the ultrasound system excel at picking out commingled items, a common smuggling approach.

In part, the border training program protects U.S. interests by reducing the risk a foreign country could accumulate sufficient components to construct weapons that might eventually reach the United States. "Every country that has built some kind of nuclear device, including the U.S. in World War II, got some materials from outside," Cliff said. "That's why the transportation corridor is so important."

As a result of the Sept. 11 incidents, Cliff said he expects border enforcement training at HAMMER to double.



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