Taking Science Out of the Nuclear Equation

By Elizabeth Wolfe /MT

"United States reeducates unemployed nuclear scientists so their poverty is no reason to sell out to a rogue state."

Tuesday, Nov 6, 2001.

They understand the physics behind creating weapons of mass destruction and some could cobble together blueprints for a nuclear bomb.

But since the mid-1990s, thousands of scientists and engineers from former Soviet weapons facilities have been trained to produce wheelchair seats, 3-D cameras and prosthetic legs, all courtesy of the U.S. government, which is spending money in the name of nonproliferation.

The latest project from the U.S. Department of Energy's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention program has 17 scientists -- most from Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, the chief center for nuclear research in Russia -- learning how to produce commercial software products.

It is another step by the United States to harness Russia's nuclear weapons knowledge before it gets exported to so-called rogue states -- although many throw doubt on the risk these scientists actually pose to global security.

The project is the first time the IPP, run by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the DOE, has tapped Russia's growing market for offshore programming. It expects to eventually convert 500 scientists and engineers -- 120 a year -- now working in institutes across the country into gainful employees in the global IT industry.

In the first year, most of the allotted $525,000 will go to Kurchatov and Russian software firm Luxoft -- divided 70/30, the DOE stated -- to run a training center at the Kurchatov Institute. U.S. company CTG Inc., which also participates in training and will employ some of the scientists, is expected to fund as much or more by the end of the program. The classroom opens this week.

The Kurchatov Institute, named for Igor Kurchatov, regarded as the father of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, has worked with the DOE on nonproliferation projects since the mid-1990s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the institute saw its payroll halved as military orders fell. Of its current 4,000 to 5,000 employees, about a third work on state-funded projects, as opposed to almost 100 percent in the 1980s, while others have to find outside work.

Andrei Pimenov, a senior computer specialist who has been at Kurchatov since 1979, and one of the 17 to start training this week, is using the program as a chance for a career change.

For nine months, Pimenov, 43, will learn how to capitalize on his present skills. With two children in school, the former nuclear weapons scientist is looking for a way to earn more than $250 a month.

Others at the institute earn 1,000 rubles ($33) a month.

At a Washington news conference in early October, with the Sept. 11 attacks still very much on everyone's minds, speakers billed the training as a way to reduce potential terrorism threats.

"Our primary goal is to ensure that former weapons scientists and engineers remain gainfully employed in meaningful, sustainable, peaceful civilian endeavors," said Sarah Lennon, an NNSA official, in an e-mail interview.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government proposed budget cuts for the DOE's nonproliferation programs in Russia, but these have not been as big as expected. As part of a larger energy bill, the House of Representatives and Senate approved last week $804 million for all NNSA's nuclear nonproliferation programs in 2002, $69 million down on 2001 funding, but $30 million more than the amount requested by the administration. The bill is expected to be signed by the White House any day now.

There is a smattering of examples -- some proven, some not -- throughout the 1990s to support nonproliferation funding. Lennon recalled an instance in 1992 when a group of Russian scientists were stopped "on the tarmac" as they were leaving for North Korea.

Yet many have questioned the success rate of such programs in warding off the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Assessing the actual risk of nuclear proliferation is difficult as it is impossible to count how many poorly paid scientists did not sell secrets to terrorist organizations, Iraq, North Korea or other states the United States has branded rogue, said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington

"I think the risk so far has not been very well defined," Milhollin said. "A scientist can give help to a rogue nuclear program without leaving home and while doing other work."

At the institute, Alexei Vertiporokh, the deputy director of Kurchatov's 3-year-old commercial arm, Technopark, said he doubted that one of theirs could sell out to North Korea.

Pimenov also views it as unlikely that a colleague could go to the other side for want of money, but he doesn't rule it out.

"It could happen. But we wouldn't know about it," Pimenov said.

However, Vertiporokh, who earlier studied nuclear physics, said it's not his place to gauge the risks.

"I can't speak for the DOE about whether something's dangerous or not," he said. "I studied that and don't think it's dangerous, but maybe they [the DOE] have different ways to judge."

Making weapons also requires much more than just recruiting weapons knowledge -- the process relies on hard materials and the capability to actually produce.

"The problem always is that getting a scientist is not enough," said independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "He needs a Soviet industry."

Another criticism of the programs is that money has been mismanaged or misallocated. A report a few years ago by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that 37 percent of IPP program funds were going to the former Soviet Union, with the rest given to U.S. national labs. The report's recommendations have been acted upon, Lennon said.

Milhollin questioned whether the programs are worth it. "I think we're just throwing money into the shadows and hoping that it prevents something bad from happening," he said.

Unsurprisingly, Russian participants in the latest project are grabbing the opportunity for free job training.

"It can cost us $8,000 to $10,000 to train one employee," said Anatoly Karachinsky, CEO of IBS group, which created Luxoft.

However, Pimenov and Vertiporokh cast doubt on the DOE's projection of training 120 scientists a year, saying it was hard enough to gather 17. They estimated that only half that was feasible -- partly because not all scientists and engineers are lured by better paychecks to leave their respective institutes and enter a daily work routine.

"There are two categories of people -- those sitting happy earning $100 a month and those who look for work," Vertiporokh said.


 

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