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Posted: 12/24/2003 6:36:44 AM EDT
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SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) -- U.S. and Russian experts recovered 37 pounds of weapons-grade uranium - enough to develop a nuclear warhead - from a closed atomic facility in Bulgaria, a government official said Wednesday.

Bulgarian special police assisted in the top secret operation meant to combat nuclear terrorism, said Emil Vapirev, the head of the government agency for nuclear regulation. The United States covered the $400,000 cost for the operation, which took place earlier this week.

Though details on the mission were sketchy, Vapirev said a cache of highly enriched uranium was trucked from the Institute of Nuclear Sciences just outside the capital, Sofia, to the airport of Gorna Oryahovitsa, some 150 miles to the east. A Russian AN-12 cargo plane flew the uranium to a Russian reprocessing center to be made into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

The highly enriched uranium would have been enough to develop a small nuclear warhead, Vapirev said.

The latest U.S.-Russian effort is part of a larger nuclear materials security program that has been given new urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Experts worry that terrorists or hostile nations may get their hands on enough uranium or plutonium to build a nuclear bomb from one of hundreds of research reactors around the world.

It was the third such operation. Experts conducted a similar mission in Yugoslavia in August 2002 and in Romania, three months ago.

The United States has focused on 24 reactors in 16 countries that were built and fueled with help from the former Soviet Union. The reactors are designed to use highly enriched uranium - which can also be used to make nuclear bombs - to create nuclear isotopes used for medical treatments and other peaceful purposes.

Such reactors are of concern because they would offer a ready source of precisely the material needed to create a nuclear bomb - and security at some of them is frighteningly lax because of cost cutting that has accompanied security measures following the collapse of communism more than a decade ago.

The research reactor in Sofia was shut down in 1989, but the uranium remained there.

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