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.
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Negotiators for RosAtom and DOE failed to renew the deal in 2003 after the US side demanded a blanket liability exemption for Americans working on NCI projects, and the Russians balked. Earlier this year, the US acquiesced to the Russians. But whether it will be enough to interest Moscow in extending the deal remains highly uncertain, US officials and other observers say.Skip to next paragraph
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Even before the legal dispute, Moscow complained that NCI budgets in the $20 million range were too low, that much of the money was being spent in the US, and that highly qualified scientists were being re-trained to do low-level jobs like computer programmer and paramedic.
But Russian security concerns may also have played a role.
"Access to closed cities was the biggest stumbling block. Russian secrecy paranoia still exists," says Gennady Pshakhin, an expert at the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering in the formerly closed city of Obninsk. He says if his institute – which specializes in civilian nuclear energy – invites a foreigner to visit, it must obtain clearance from President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
Supporters say the NCI made a big difference in some places, and could have done much more if more time and resources had been devoted. In Sarov – Russia's Los Alamos – NCI helped to close down one of the ex-USSR's biggest nuclear warhead factories, and turn it into a computer center that's now used by firms like Intel and Motorola. About 1,000 new jobs were created, Mr. Yudin says.
"The program really helped to diversify Sarov's economy; it changed peoples' mentality and helped to prepare them for the market," says Alexei Golubov, a former nuclear researcher who now works as an information analyst. "It was like a small window that opened onto the world for us."
Impelling NCI and other such programs is evidence over the years that Russian scientists might be willing to shop their skills to rogue regimes. In one reported 1992 incident, a planeload of Russian scientists was stopped by police "on the tarmac" as they embarked for North Korea. In 1998, an arms expert in Sarov was arrested by the FSB security service for allegedly spying for Iraq.
A study last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology surveyed the attitudes of 602 Russian nuclear, biological, and chemical WMD scientists. The study found that the mean income for such scientists was about $110 a month, and that 21 percent were willing to move to a "rogue nation" to work. As for the impact of assistance programs like NCI, the survey found 12 percent of those with grant funding would consider work in a rogue state, versus 28 percent without funding.
However, it's doubtful that any atomic experts could illegally leave Russia now, Pshakhin says.
"A lot of nuclear scientists are still underemployed, but things are a bit better," he says. "Nuclear scientists are under very strong monitoring. We are not allowed to move freely. Any attempt by a foreign power to recruit Russian scientists would immediately come to the attention of the FSB."
RosAtom chief Mr. Kiriyenko has announced plans for a sweeping revival of Russia's civilian atomic power industry. Military leaders also talk of putting weapons experts back to work.
Vladimir Fortov, head of the department of energy for the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that while Russia is returning some scientists to their old jobs, the NCI training programs remain valuable.
"They aided Russian-American mutual understanding, and it will be very unfortunate if they are discontinued," he says.