A city struggles to find formula for success
Once-secret Russian research hive opens for business, offering commercial spinoffs.
OBNINSK, RUSSIA — Alexander Sorokin is a physicist by training. But these days, he is something of an alchemist as well, determined to turn leftover Soviet military know-how into capitalist gold.
A physicist who spent his life working on secret nuclear programs in the formerly closed "atomic city" of Obninsk, Mr. Sorokin is deputy head of the local Science Council, dedicated to making commercially viable entities of the city's 12 impoverished state-run institutes, which still employ thousands of atomic specialists and engineers.
"We once designed nuclear reactors for submarines and spaceships here in Obninsk," he says. "I think we could figure out how to make a better mousetrap, too."
The Obninsk Science Council currently has a portfolio of 300 ideas drawn from the city's formerly secret research projects, some of which could revolutionize the way things are done if implemented in the civilian economy, Sorokin says.
Among these are aerosol filters used in atomic-power plants, now being tried experimentally in processing dairy products. One Obninsk institute is producing a popular brand of iodized bread, and preparing to market a line of biologically active mineral food supplements said to be more digestible than current types. Also in the works are new industrial methods for handling radioisotopes and heavy metals, he says.
More than Russia's economic fate may ride on the success of efforts to turn the heavily militarized former Soviet scientific complex to civilian pursuits.
Obninsk, 100 kilometers south of Moscow, is one of a score of closed towns built by the USSR, often in remote regions, which still house tens of thousands of nuclear-bomb and missile experts.
Under the Soviet regime, they led a privileged life, but with the 1991 collapse of Communism, government support evaporated.
A recent survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found many of those communities in an advanced state of social and economic collapse. Significant numbers of bomb and missile experts expressed a desire to emigrate, and some said they would work for anyone who paid them.
"You can't attach security guards to all the Russian scientists who possess dangerous knowledge and therefore pose a risk of nuclear proliferation," says Vladimir Orlov, an atomic physicist and director of the independent Pir Center in Moscow, a think tank on nuclear-security issues. "Ultimately we must find new employment that rewards them with appropriate salaries and status. We're still a long way from that."
At least one nuclear-bomb expert recruited from a former Soviet Central Asian republic is known to be working for international terrorist Osama bin Laden, Mr. Orlov says, citing sources in the Kremlin's Security Council.
Seven years ago, the Federal Security Service, the former KGB, stopped a planeload of Russian atomic scientists just as they were departing for North Korea. "Things are under better control now, because our current leadership understands how crucial this problem is," Orlov says.
Many Russian security experts lament the apparent determination of the Bush administration to cancel subsidies Washington has been paying to Russian military scientists to tide them over the financial crisis and keep them from leaving their posts.
"Obninsk has been a minor recipient of American aid, yet it has made a real difference to some scientists here," says Sorokin. "Some of our sister cities are still under a closed regime and in far more difficult straits than we, and are much more dependent on external aid. I don't know what they'll do if it's cut off."
In contrast to most of its sister communities, the efforts of scientists in Obninsk were directed mainly toward the Soviet Union's "peaceful" nuclear program. The world's first civilian atomic power reactor went online here in 1946. Obninsk experts have been heavily involved in studying and cleaning up the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown and other Soviet-era nuclear disasters.
"It was the good fortune of Obninsk to be given nonmilitary tasks," says Yelena Kolotikina, the city council's chief spokeswoman. "In Soviet times it meant lower prestige, but it is the main reason we are open to the world today while most of those military towns are still tightly closed."
About half of Obninsk's specialists have left their scientific jobs over the past decade. The average salary for those remaining is just 1,800 rubles (about $60) per month.
"Young people are not coming into physics any more," says Alexander Savelyev, vice president of the independent National Security and Strategic Research Institute in Moscow. "Russian science is falling behind and could die within a generation. If things don't soon change, we may not even have enough specialists to maintain the nuclear infrastructure that we inherited from the Soviet Union."