Senior Fellow Siegfried Hecker was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. The economy of the post-Soviet states was in severe crisis; the state borders were redrawn, the security environment changed completely; and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and more than 1,000 tons of fissile materials across the former Soviet states were inadequately protected.
The U.S. government was concerned that the thousands of Soviet scientists who were suddenly in limbo would turn to Iran or Iraq to sell their nuclear knowledge. Hecker persuaded the Department of Energy to let him go directly to his Russian counterparts in their nuclear labs to help them secure their nuclear assets.
In February 1992, Hecker was on the tarmac in the once-secret Russian nuclear city of Sarov, shaking hands with Yuli Khariton, the Soviet physicist who had been the chief designer of Soviet Union’s atomic bomb.
A scientific collaboration was born that expanded to tackle a broad range of nuclear safety and security issues. It prospered for 20 years and made decisive contributions to the highly improved safety and security in the Russian nuclear weapons complex found today. Hecker has made more than 50 trips to Russia and the former Soviet states over the last two decades to enhance cooperation on nuclear safety and security.
Cooperation between the American and Russian nuclear weapons laboratories, carried out under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR – or Nunn-Lugar program) umbrella was instrumental to improved nuclear security in Russia. It led to the development of several Department of Energy’s programs such as the Warhead Safety and Security Exchange (WSSX) Agreement and program initiated in 1995, the Materials Protection, Control and Accounting program established in 1994, and a number of programs to address the defense conversion effort and prevent a potential brain drain in the Russian nuclear weapons complex. Enormous progress to enhance the physical security of nuclear sites and the safety of fissile materials and nuclear weapons was made in Russia and some of the former Soviet states over the years. However, this work is never completely done– both the United States and Russia must continue to sustain improved security practices. And, new challenges await in states such as China, Iran, India and Pakistan that could and should be addressed through a cooperative effort of American and Russian nuclear safety experts.
Hecker continues his work with the Russians and former Soviet states. In 2016, he brought to fruition a 6-year-long project of writing a book to document the genesis and accomplishments of this remarkable, but little-known, lab-to-lab collaboration. The book, published by the Los Alamos Historical Society, in two volumes and in almost one thousand pages presents the inside stories of this collaboration narrated by the very people on the ground – namely, the scientists and engineers from the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons laboratories who labored together in thousands of projects, and government officials who took significant career risks to make crucial and timely decisions. While a major milestone in Hecker’s research project, the publication of the book is to be a vehicle to advocate the return to cooperation, which flourished in the 1990s but has declined in the last 10 years and almost came to an end after the Ukraine crisis in 2014. The project will continue to complement ongoing official government efforts to rejuvenate lab-to-lab cooperation.
For a inside look into the story of the US-Russian lab-to-lab collaboration, please visit this website: https://lab2lab.stanford.edu. A website devoted to the June 2013 Conference on Russia-U.S. Nuclear Cooperation contains rich and informative presentations on many lab-to-lab and CTR cooperation programs by experts from both countries.
Siegfried Hecker (left) and Kazakh colleagues toast during an October 2012 ceremony to quietly commemorate their long collaboration mitigate nuclear proliferation dangers at the former Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear test site now in the country of Kazakhstan.