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.
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."
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.
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.