MONTEREY, CALIF. — ON Nov. 27, 1993, two former Russian Navy men slipped through a shipyard gate near Murmansk. They pried open a padlock and absconded with 4.5 kilograms of enriched uranium stuffed into a bag.
The West might never have known of the nuclear smuggling, though, if it hadn't been for the sleuthing of a novel enterprise housed in a hillside bungalow here.
Known as the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the group has achieved worldwide recognition for plugging vital gaps of knowledge in the global movements of nuclear-weapons components.
''They generate information in a host of ways that no one else is doing. [It's] very useful in alerting the world to potential danger, as well as in formulating government policy,'' says Gloria Duffy, senior fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control in Palo Alto, Calif. ''By establishing ties and links with leaders and potential leaders in former Soviet republics, CNS also educates them to the necessity of being responsible in dealing with weapons and nuclear materials.''
The center was started by William Potter, an academic who began studying nuclear nonproliferation about 25 years ago. A group of former students asked him to conduct a profile of the literature available in nonproliferation, but he found the field so wide open that he ended up writing a book on it. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he saw the potential for black markets in nuclear weapons and felt the subject was not getting the press it deserved.
''I found there were only a few groups in the world giving serious attention to this issue,'' says the bespectacled Dr. Potter from his tome-strewn office here. ''People were simply not well-positioned to answer basic questions about trade in nuclear-weapons components.''
With a handful of students to help him, Potter purchased a few standard computers and began to create a database of his own. Today he has more than 20 full-time employees and 40 graduate students who plow through foreign trade journals, surf the international computer networks, and powwow with journalists and officials on six continents. The US government, several foreign countries, and the United Nations subscribe to his databases.
Potter calls the system ''open-source monitoring'' because 90 percent of the relevant information is accessible to the public, ''but it's scattered in very specialized and expensive nuclear trade publications,'' he says.
Drawing on a multilingual staff that reads in languages from Arabic to Uzbek, Potter's personnel feed information into computers, which then pinpoint who has what and what they might be doing with it.
''If we find that someone has acquired natural uranium on one transaction, and a gas centrifuge in another to help enrich the uranium, and also certain components to make a detonator - a little bell goes off that something could be up,'' says Betsy Perabo, project manager for monitoring proliferation threats.
Potter also organizes conferences to heighten the profile of proliferation issues and testifies frequently before Congress.
''There are hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium scattered throughout the former Soviet Union,'' Potter says. ''We have moved from a situation where one government had a monopoly of control over nuclear material to one where private entrepreneurs now have access to this material.''