U.S.-Russia Nuclear Scientist Program Losing Power
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
On Friday, an American program aimed at preventing Russian nuclear scientists from selling their expertise to the highest bidder came to an end. The Nuclear Cities Initiative helped some 1,600 Russian nuclear scientists make the transition to other jobs. It has also helped dismantle the vast Russian nuclear complex. But it ended because neither the U.S. nor Russia had the will to continue it. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER: The possibility that criminals and terrorists might get their hands on Russian nuclear materials has been an international concern for some 15 years, ever since the demise of the Soviet government. The Russian nuclear weapons complex is vast, and so are the programs the U.S. fashioned to help the Russians secure that complex. Eight years ago, the Department of Energy came up with an idea designed to prevent Russian nuclear scientists from selling their expertise to potential adversary nations or terrorists.
Rose Gottemoeller was assistant secretary of energy at the time. Now she heads the office in Moscow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ms. ROSE GOTTEMOELLER (Former Assistant Secretary of Energy): The original idea of the Nuclear Cities Initiative was really to facilitate and speed a Russian process of shutting down nuclear facilities producing weapons that could be directed at us. So I always thought it had a very important strategic rationale for the United States.
SHUSTER: About 35,000 Russian scientists worked in the Soviet weapons complex, so there was a great need to help them make the transition to a new non-nuclear economy, says Ken Luongo, who also worked on these issues in the Department of Energy.
Mr. KEN LUONGO (Department of Energy): This is a highly specialized knowledge that a lot of these people have, and you don't want that highly specialized knowledge being spread around the globe at a time when there are a lot of other countries that are looking at nuclear programs.
SHUSTER: At its height a few years ago, the Nuclear Cities Initiative cost the U.S. $20 million a year. Its budget was about half that in the last couple of years. That was a tiny slice of about a billion dollars, all told, that the U.S. spends annually to help secure nuclear materials and warheads in Russia. But, says Ken Luongo, both the U.S. and Russia had their reasons to discontinue the program.
Mr. LUONGO: There is clearly a security crackdown in Russia, and there has been for some time, where U.S. access to Russian facilities has become increasingly difficult. On the U.S. side I think the patience is beginning to run out, in particular in the Congress. The Congress has told the executive branch that they want this set of activities to ramp down between 2008 and 2012, and I think the administration, frankly, is willing to accept that recommendation from the Congress.
SHUSTER: In the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration implemented the Nuclear Cities Initiative. Spokeswoman Julie Smith(ph) says the U.S. will stay involved with Russia on alternatives for keeping Russian nuclear scientists satisfied at home.
Ms. JULIE SMITH (Spokeswoman, Nuclear Cities Initiative): I think it's important to note here that we have other programs at NNSA and throughout the federal government that are meeting similar goals with respect to scientist engagement and redirection, and we are working with the Russians right now to determine the best way forward.
SHUSTER: That includes a new program called the Global Initiative for Proliferation Prevention started last year that is targeting the scientists of other nations such as Libya, as well as Russia. But critics believe there still needs to be a concerted effort aimed at Russian scientists who work at the largest nuclear weapons complex in the world. One recent survey of Russian nuclear, biological and chemical-weapons scientists found that many would be willing to sell their knowledge to so-called rogue states, notes Rose Gottemoeller.
Ms. GOTTEMOELLER: They fount that about 21 percent of those that they questioned - tended to be the younger scientists, which gave me great cause for concern - they had this kind of flexible attitude about who they would be willing to work for, and so I think that's a wake-up call for all of us. It should be a wake-up call for the Russian government as well.
SHUSTER: That same survey found that those Russian scientists have a mien monthly income of $110.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.