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Renewing ties among American and Russian nuclear scientists

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Siegfried Hecker in February 1992 greeting Yuli Khariton, the Soviet physicist who was the chief designer of Russia's atomic bomb. They were meeting in the once-secret Russian nuclear city of Sarov, launching a 20-year collaboration between American and Russian nuclear scientists.
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CISAC

As the Soviet Union was dying in December 1991, a quiet collaboration between Russian and American scientists was being born. The Russians were bankrupt, the KGB was in disarray and nuclear scientist Siegfried S. Hecker – at the time director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory – was alarmed as tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and much of the more than 1,000 tons of fissile materials across the broken Soviet states stood poorly protected.

Thousands of Soviet scientists were suddenly in limbo and President George H.W. Bush worried some might turn to Iran or Iraq to sell their nuclear knowledge. Washington suddenly found itself more threatened by Russia’s weakness than its strengths. That recognition drove U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar to launch cooperative threat reduction legislation, subsequently known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act.

Secretary of Energy Admiral James Watkins echoed President Bush’s concern when he called a meeting in December 1991 with Hecker, today the co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

“I told him, I’ve been trying to get us together with the Russians for several years,” Hecker said. “Why don’t we go to their lab directors and say, `What’s it going to take to keep your guys home and from selling their knowledge someplace else?’”

Several weeks later, in February 1992, Hecker was on a tarmac in the once-secret Russian nuclear city of Sarov, shaking hands with Yuli Khariton. The Soviet physicist was the chief designer of Russia’s atomic bomb – their Robert Oppenheimer, creator of our nuclear bomb and first director of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.

Hecker would go on to make 44 trips to Russia in the name of nuclear nonproliferation and cooperation. His most recent was last month with CISAC researchers Peter Davis and Niko Milonopoulos and a dozen Americans scientists, to commemorate 20 years of laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation. They hosted a conference with their Russian counterparts in Sarov, the Russian version of Los Alamos 300 miles east of Moscow.

Some 100 Americans and Russians attended various legs of the conference, including the scientific directors of the three Russian nuclear weapons laboratories: Rady Ilkaev, Evgeny Avrorin and Yuri Barmakov. The American delegation included Jeffery Richardson, CISAC affiliate and former head of chemistry and proliferation prevention at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; James W. Toevs, former project leader for the Nuclear Cities Initiatives at Los Alamos; and K. David Nokes, former vice president of national security and arms control at Sandia National Laboratory. 

Hecker is determined to reignite the collaboration efforts, which have diminished dramatically in the last decade due to stark differences at the highest levels of our governments and because the Russian secret service agency has again tightened their grip on the nuclear complex.

“The 1990s were the heydays for us,” he said. “The scientists played a major role; we actually pushed the envelope on what we could do cooperatively. We worked well with the Russians.”

The U.S. Department of Energy supported and financed the joint efforts of the American and Russian nuclear laboratories to secure and safeguard Russian nuclear facilities and materials. They enlisted the help of civilian institutes to make urgent security upgrades at their nuclear facilities and the Americans brought the Russians to the U.S. nuclear sites – including the plutonium facility at Los Alamos – to let them see firsthand how Americans handled protection, control and accounting of nuclear material.

“The Sandia National Laboratories actually helped provide Kevlar blankets to protect Russian nuclear weapons while they were transporting them so that in case somebody shot at them, you didn’t get a mushroom cloud,” Hecker recalled.

Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power for the first time in 2000 and the Federal Security Service – formerly the KGB – started tightening the screws. U.S. visas became difficult to obtain after the 9/11 terrorist attacks ratcheted up consular bureaucracy. Scientists on both sides began to feel less welcome at the labs and sites they had readily visited for a decade.

During his April trip, Hecker felt as if he were under house arrest in the worst security squeeze he’d seen in the 20 years of visiting Russia. He was followed by a security agent when he jogged, until the mud along the river became too deep for the agent’s shiny black shoes; Davis and Milonopoulos had their access denied at the last minute and were not allowed to enter Sarov to attend the three-day portion of the conference.

Many lab-to-lab cooperative agreements were allowed to expire by the Russian side in the last decade; even collaborations on fundamental research have been restricted and there is little nuclear power engineering cooperation. Worst of all, Hecker said, joint efforts to battle nuclear terrorism and compare means by which each side keeps its nuclear warheads safe and secure without nuclear testing are now virtually nonexistent.

“We ought to be working together, for heavens sake,” he said. “We’re not going to terrorize each other; we’ve got to keep the terrorists away from the rest of the world. We just have to get back to working together.”

Hecker, along with two former Russian nuclear weapons lab directors, is working on a book to document 20 years of nuclear collaboration between Russian and American nuclear scientists.Their first step will be to compile the proceedings of the meetings with their Russian counterparts in Sarov, Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow. The document will be provided to the U.S. Department of Energy and policymakers in the Obama administration, as well as the three current U.S. nuclear lab directors, who are making their first joint visit to Russia in June. Hecker said his Russian counterparts are trying to coax Moscow into jumpstarting the collaboration efforts while wooing a new generation of nuclear scientists to the table.

“The book is going to do a thorough job of looking at: What we did, why did it matter, what conditions made it possible and, then, what lessons were learned that might allow us to reestablish the relationship,” he said.

Hecker had another mission on his recent trip to Sarov. He wanted to reassure his Russian counterparts that their personal relationships truly mattered.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus were confronted with a new reality: They went from lives of privilege to poverty. Programs launched by the U.S. Departments of State and Energy brought financial support to Russia’s closed nuclear cities, showed the Russian nuclear workers that they had a future in non-weapons research – and that someone cared about their well-being.

“One thing that came out, talk after talk during this trip, was how important the social relationships were between the scientists; how they are absolutely crucial,” Hecker said. Those little-known relationships – many of which became enduring friendships that celebrate marriages and grandchildren – led to significant steps in the U.S.-Russian nuclear threat reduction program.

President Ronald Reagan used one of his signature phrases, “Trust, but verify,” when he and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, eliminating nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges. The phrase was taken from an old Russian proverb.

A year later, that proverb was put in effect with Hecker’s hand on the nuclear button at the Nevada test site for the Joint Verification Experiment.

“In August of ’88, the Soviets were at our test sites in Nevada and I was in the control room, essentially pushing the button to blow up one of our nuclear devices down hole, while the Russians had a cable that ran down the hole with which they were going to measure the magnitude of the nuclear explosion,” Hecker said. The following month, American scientists were in Russia to do the same.

“So I was sitting there in our control room, with the Russians right across the table from me,” he recalls. “That introduced us to the Russian nuclear scientists for the first time. You know what we said? These guys are just like us. They just want to do exactly the same thing for their country that we were doing for ours: keep their country safe and secure. And that started the process of working together.”

Today, the Russian proverb made famous by an American president could be turned on its head if the Russian-American nuclear collaboration is allowed to thrive: Verify through Trust.