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Machinery designed to detect and analyze flaws in nuclear warheads and in experimental laser weapons soon may be used to provide women better early detection of breast cancer.

The Energy Department signed an agreement Wednesday for a $3.28 million joint venture between the department's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and a Colorado manufacturer of X-ray equipment to develop improved "digital" detection technology for breast cancer.Fischer Imaging Corp. of Denver, a leading manufacturer of diagnostic X-ray machinery, will finance $2.4 million, while the government will contribute $880,000, according to the agreement.

The digital technology will allow clearer images for medical technicians and lead to earlier and more precise detection of cancers in the breast, cancer experts said.

Dr. Faina Shtern, chairman of diagnostic imaging at the National Cancer Institute, said the new technology, once it is widely used, will represent "a real revolution" in the ability analyze breast X-ray images and to detect early cancers.

While a prototype of commercial equipment may be ready for government review in about a year, industry and government officials acknowledged at a news conference that it may take as long a decade for the new technology to widely replace the 12,000 current X-ray machines now in use.

But Morgan Nields, chairman of Fischer Imaging, said, the equipment is likely to be available at some hospitals much earlier. "We think it will be compelling for major medical institutions to take this technology as soon as they can get it," said Nields.

He expects the new equipment to cost two to three times as much as most conventional X-ray machinery - but be cheaper to operate.

The digital technology has been used for years at government weapons laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore in California to check for possible flaws in components of nuclear weapons, laser weapons and other defense-related hardware.

But some of the government's machinery costs several million dollars, compared with roughly $75,000 for conventional X-ray equipment used in hospitals.

Breast cancer claims the lives of an estimated 46,000 women in the United States each year.