Hecker promotes nuclear cooperation in Moscow, despite Ukraine crisis

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Siegfried Hecker addresses the workshop with MEPhI rector Mikhail Strikhanov (left) and Russian scientist Vladimir Rybachenkov on April 24, 2014.
Photo credit: 
Peter Davis

CISAC Senior Fellow Siegfried Hecker and a delegation of American scientists traveled to Moscow last week to revitalize nuclear cooperation with Russia, despite diplomatic tensions between the United States and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

The delegation that traveled to Russia last week included former U.S. laboratory scientists Paul White, James Toevs, and K. David Nokes, as well as CISAC research assistants Peter Davis and Alla Kassianova and CISAC fellow Jason Reinhardt.

The team traveled to Russia to host a workshop and make the case that continued scientific cooperation in reducing nuclear risks – particularly to prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism – should remain a top priority for both countries, even as U.S.-Russia relations continue to deteriorate.

The White House has implemented increasingly stricter sanctions against top Russian officials and has restricted official travel and scientific cooperation. Washington accuses Moscow of trying to destabilize the new government in Ukraine by backing pro-Russian separatists in the former Soviet state.

Hecker chaired a Track II workshop at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (MEPhI) on April 24 on “Cooperation on Countering Nuclear Terrorism and Nonproliferation.” Presenters from Russian institutes and U.S. laboratories included Reinhardt, a national security systems analyst at Sandia National Laboratories who is pursuing a PhD at Stanford in Management Science & Engineering. He argued for expanded cooperation to counter nuclear terrorism and reduce the risk of global proliferation.

“It is paramount that American and Russian scientists continue to work together to deal with today’s nuclear risks despite the tension between our two nations,” says Hecker, a Stanford professor of management science and engineering. The former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory made his first trip to the Russian nuclear complex in early 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to promote joint efforts to mitigate the threats posed by the huge Russian nuclear complex during a time of political and economic turmoil.

The threats have changed during the past 22 years, but have not gone away, Hecker says. Yet cooperation between Russian and American nuclear scientists has declined significantly during the past decade because Russia has recovered economically and has grown progressively more protective against external intervention. Now, the crisis in the Ukraine threatens to stop cooperation completely.

More than 200 students from MEPhI’s nuclear science and nonproliferation programs participated in the workshop, alongside prominent Russian scientists.

“The large audience indicates how seriously the nuclear specialists from both sides take the need to protect the world from the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to other states and non-state actors,” says Hecker, whose workshop grew from his Nuclear Risk Reduction Project (NRR), which is funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Hecker is also working with his former Russian counterparts at the Russian nuclear weapons laboratories on a book about the history of U.S.-Russia national laboratory cooperation, which is due out later this year. That book will tell the story of how the scientists worked together during difficult times to make the world a safer place.

Russian and American scientists discuss nuclear collaboration as students from the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute look on.
Photo Credit: Peter Davis

We asked Hecker to answer several questions related to his trip to Moscow.

Why did you still travel to Moscow given the recent events in Ukraine?

I had to discuss the book with my Russian collaborators in order to meet our fall deadline for publication. We also wanted to reinforce the belief of scientists on both sides that we must continue to cooperate even, or perhaps especially, when our governments are at odds. That is why we organized the educational conference on nuclear cooperation.

Did the U.S. government try to stop you?

Since I went as a Stanford University professor, I did not need official approval. Key individuals in the government knew that I was going and did not try to stop me. However, colleagues from the Department of Energy’s nuclear laboratories were prohibited from attending a related conference and Washington canceled several official bilateral meetings and visits.

Were the Russians allowed to meet with your delegation?

Yes, we met with the key individuals on the Russian side and MEPhI organized a great conference. We did have to switch the venue of one of our side meetings from one of the Russian nuclear weapons laboratories to neutral ground. I think the Russian government did not want these meetings to look official after the U.S. government has canceled most interactions for the foreseeable future.

How do your Russian collaborators view the recent events in Ukraine?

Without exception, they viewed it with alarm and laid the blame squarely on the “fascists” who took over Kiev’s government illegally. They could not understand how the Americans could support what they see as an illegitimate regime. We got quite a lesson on the intertwined history of Russia and the Ukraine. They believe the Americans simply don’t understand the deep relations and commitment all Russians have for Ukraine. When we tried to give a Western point of view, some Russian colleagues told us that we have been brainwashed by Washington and the media.

How does the downturn in relations affect your views on the need for cooperation?

Despite their views on Ukraine, our Russian colleagues all said we must continue to work the nuclear issues together. So while we couldn’t agree on Ukraine, we agreed for the need to keep up our work – which for me has now spanned 49 visits to Russia during the past 22 years. 

What role has CISAC’s collaboration with the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (MEPhI) played in your work on nuclear cooperation?

MEPhI is a great counterpart for CISAC and a number of other American universities. It educates about one-third of the scientists and engineers that make up the Russian nuclear complex. It is with the next generation that we have the best chance of reducing the global nuclear risks that we face now and in the future.