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US-Russia effort to contain nuclear experts fades

A Russia-US partnership to stem Russian brain drain is set to expire Friday, barring final talks.

By , / September 20, 2006


At a Moscow conference in 2000 on stopping the global migration of nuclear-weapons know-how, a Russian security official revealed that Taliban envoys had tried to recruit a Russian nuclear expert.

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That expert didn't go to work for the Afghan regime. But three of his colleagues did leave their institute for other nations – and Russian officials had no idea which ones, US experts say.

With the threat of nuclear terrorism looming large in a post-9/11 world, the brain drain of Russian nuclear expertise is an even more critical concern than it was six years ago, many say. Yet a unique 1998 US-Russian partnership to offer new opportunities and skills to destitute Russian nuclear specialists living in remote former-Soviet "science cities" is set to expire Friday unless last-minute diplomacy saves it.

A stronger Russian economy and growing wariness of US access to sensitive nuclear programs has dampened Moscow's enthusiasm for the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) program, as has a three-year wrangle with Washington over legal liability issues, observers say.

"It will be a great pity if this program dies, because it really had an impact around here," says Yuri Yudin, a former atomic scientist who heads the Analytical Center for Nonproliferation in the closed city of Sarov, one of several NCI-funded projects. "The objective was to create nonmilitary businesses and new jobs that could become self-sustaining, and it had considerable success. But the task is far from finished."

Others say losing the program would be another "unsettling sign" of erosion in US-Russia nuclear security cooperation.

"If we eliminate this program we will be losing a major nonproliferation agreement," says Kenneth Luongo, executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, a nuclear nonproliferation group in Washington.

Ten Russian cities – mainly linked to nuclear weapons and missile research – remain "closed" today, even to Russians who lack special permission. The closed nature of the cities became traps for some of the estimated 35,000 Russian scientists who needed work after the Soviet Union's collapse. For these scientists, who live under security surveillance, jobs needed to be created in the closed cities.

The tiny NCI program, which has helped 1,600 scientists in its existence, has been folded into a much larger DOE effort that employs more than 13,000 Russian scientists with grant funding. But NCI is unique in its focus on job creation in closed cities by converting existing nuclear complexes into other businesses, such as computer centers, US officials say.

"If you put the money through different channels, it's not the same," Mr. Luongo says. "The program's underpinnings and momentum ... are lost."

The head of Russia's nuclear agency RosAtom, Sergei Kiriyenko, is slated to meet US Department of Energy chief Samuel Bodman in Vienna this week in an eleventh-hour chance to save the program.

"It [NCI] has been definitely a useful tool, a unique way to work with Russian WMD scientists and engineers," says Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration that administers NCI.

Not everyone agrees the program is still needed. Valentin Ivanov, a member of the Russian parliament's energy committee, says that while there's still plenty of room for US-Russian cooperation on nuclear disarmament, the problems of the closed cities are a "domestic matter" that Moscow now has the means to address.

"We thank the US for its help, which was greatly needed in the 1990s," he says. "But this is a new time, Russia has a budget surplus now, and [US help] is not necessary anymore."