Security Studies Program Seminar

Controlling the Proliferation of Nuclear Knowledge from the Former Soviet Union

Sharon Weiner
American University, School of International Service

April 26, 2006

I will talk today about efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons related knowledge from the states of the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. I will focus on three U.S. government programs and one international effort. Two US programs – the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) and the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) – are administered by the Department of Energy (DOE) and are now known collectively as Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (GIPP). Both programs try to create non-weapons work for former Soviet WMD experts by convincing U.S. companies to establish joint ventures in the former Soviet Union which would employ these workers. The defense department runs the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR). The CTR program sponsors the dismantlement of weapons of mass destruction material and infrastructure, consolidates remaining material, tries to impose security standards on sensitive facilities, and funds some cooperative research with former Soviet biological and chemical weapons experts. In conjunction with the European Union, Canada and several other countries, the US participates in two Science Centers, one in Moscow and the other in Kiev. The Science Centers seek to match former Soviet WMD experts with temporary research contracts or more permanent long term employment.

I argue that since these programs began fifteen years ago, the threat of the proliferation of nuclear knowledge has changed in important and significant ways but these changes have not been reflected in U.S. programs.

The Soviets at one time employed one million people in their nuclear complex, including both weapons and nuclear power. But only about 16% of these workers were scientific personnel and of those, about half worked on nuclear weapons. In Russia today, an estimated 75,000 work in the nuclear weapons complex. Most of the reductions in the size of the Soviet complex have been due to the exodus of industrial and service workers, not scientific personnel.

Russia believes that its nuclear weapons complex is still too large and in 1998 announced plans to lay off between 35,000-40,000 workers. When plans materialize to shut down three remaining plutonium-producing reactors, this will mean the need for an additional 6,000-7,000 jobs.

In terms of job creation, most of the easy reemployment has occurred. Jobs were created by spinning off construction companies and transferring service functions to municipal and other local government entities. Some workers also retired, although the paltry size of Russian pensions has discouraged many.

In the early 1990s, many Russian scientists with knowledge of nuclear weapons were waiting for things to return to normal; today most realize this will not happen. The younger scientists who were more adaptable to a market-based economy have largely moved on. The older communists who never functioned in a market economy have had more trouble finding work. Moreover, many of these experts live in formerly secret “nuclear cities” where they enjoyed high status, heavily subsidized benefits, and good living standards. Today, these “nuclear cities” have lost most of their subsidies, have high levels of unemployment, and many young workers who compete for available jobs. Targeting older weapons workers for future job creation efforts will be more difficult for these reasons.

At the same time that job creation has gotten more difficult, concerns about proliferation have changed. In the past, the US government worried most about scientists moving permanently to states of concern to help them build indigenous weapons programs. Now, with terrorism, the concern is not about a state that wants a full scale program, but a group that wants one or two weapons. For such groups, brief exchanges of information can be useful. As travel restrictions have eased, some Russian institute directors have expressed concern about what their experts say at scientific conferences and other meetings that take place abroad. There is also concern about “moonlighting by modem” whereby experts aid proliferants by providing advice over email.

Initially, US non-proliferation programs focused on Russian nuclear institutes, partially because in the United States there programs were driven and managed by the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and their personnel. Nuclear weapons experts spoke the same language, knew each other's work through scientific journals, and valued the opportunity to finally collaborate on non-weapons work. Since 1997, however, U.S. programs have shifted to focus more on biological weapons (BW). For example, today more Science Center projects focus on BW experts than nuclear ones; IPP used to spend $500,000 on BW projects, now it annual spends about $5 million. Given the number of nuclear experts that face future unemployment and the vastly different destructive potential of nuclear versus biological weapons, it is unclear that this shift in focus is wise.

Another problem is that, in the past, US programs have focused on providing work for all employees in the nuclear complex rather than just the weapons experts. Such a focus was justified in the early 1990s when the legacy of the Cold War discouraged Russia from identifying its key weapons experts. But today greater differentiation is possible. Moreover, Russia has now started hiring new and younger scientists into its weapons complex. Yet U.S. programs make little attempt to determine whether they are engaging older scientists who face unemployment, or younger ones who have a future in the Russian weapons complex.

Russia 's partial economic recovery must also be considered. US programs were initially justified by the dire state of Russia 's economy. Like most Russian citizens, nuclear experts received very low salaries and, at times, this money was delayed for months at a time. Today, however, the salaries of weapons experts are delivered on time and are two to three times the Russian average. Russia 's GDP is growing 3-9% annually, and the government is making significant investments in its weapons complex. As Russia becomes more able to fund its own job creation programs, American politicians skeptical about these programs will argue that Russia can pay its own way. The United States is likely to seek a renegotiation of the burden for these proliferation efforts including increased cost sharing and more liberal access to sensitive Russian facilities. Russia, however, does not place the same emphasis on proliferation or terrorism as does the United States. Moreover, it remembers its former status as great power and the third-class treatment it sometimes received after the Cold War. This combination of factors makes the future of these programs, and their successful adaptation, a difficult proposition.

Sharon Weiner, a graduate of the Security Studies Program, is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University . In 2005-2006 she was a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Scientists where she is working on a book about US efforts to control the proliferation of expertise from the former Soviet WMD complexes.

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

back to Wednesday seminar series, Spring 2006