RUSSIA: Nuclear Strongholds in Peril
By Richard Stone
Science, 08 Janauary 1999
As Russia's economy deteriorates, the danger grows that the country's once-privileged nuclear cities will hemorrhage the talent and materials that rogue nations crave for making nuclear bombs
SAROV AND SNEZHINSK, RUSSIA--Vadim Simonenko has the kind of background and experience that make many nuclear weapons experts nervous. He began his career in the 1960s designing atomic explosives for carving out canals and rose through the ranks to become deputy scientific director at the
All-Russia Scientific Research Institute for Theoretical Physics (VNIITF)--an elite nuclear weapons
design center in Snezhinsk, a closed city set amid a patchwork of lakes and spruce and birch forests
east of the Ural Mountains. Simonenko has always enjoyed his work: "My ideas are like a hobby," he
says. The problem is that his job now pays like a hobby. Today, Simonenko is scrambling to find
money for research and, like his colleagues throughout Russia's vast nuclear research enterprise, he's
wondering when he will see his next paycheck.
Simonenko's plight--and that of thousands of other talented Russian nuclear scientists--makes him a
prime target for any country wanting to build a nuclear program. His team "is one whose expertise
would no doubt be extremely interesting to proliferators," says one U.S. expert. Indeed, at scientific
meetings--most recently last July in Italy--Indian and Pakistani scientists have invited Simonenko to
visit their countries and give seminars. He turned them down, preferring, he says, to seek
collaborations with colleagues in the West. But he acknowledges that, if no Russian or Western
organization were to support his work, he would consider other offers. Other suitors, surely, are
waiting in the wings. "At nearly every nuclear institute they visit, [U.S. officials] find another recently
received Iranian business card," says Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and
Reassuringly, nuclear physicists like Simonenko appear to be resisting these overtures, according to
several dozen scientists and government officials interviewed by Science during a recent visit behind
the barbed wire fences that still surround the country's 10 "nuclear cities." "These people are the real
heroes of the story," says Bunn. "It is their devotion to their country and their work that has been the
key factor preventing a proliferation catastrophe." But with Russia's economy continuing to erode,
lucrative job offers from abroad could become more and more tempting. "There are many countries
with a strong proliferation agenda ready and willing to court these nuclear specialists," said U.S.
Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson at a public forum last month to unveil a
Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) to counteract this threat.
Ominous signs of strain are increasingly evident among the once-elite researchers in these secret cities,
the names of which have only recently begun to appear on official maps. Last year, thousands of
nuclear workers took to the streets in Snezhinsk and Sarov to protest months of unpaid wages. These
nuclear sanctums are bracing for further unrest: Acknowledging that it can no longer maintain its
sprawling nuclear weapons complex, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, says that as
many as 50,000 of the 130,000 weapons specialists in its nuclear cities may have to find new work in
the next several years. And that could be an underestimate. "It could be safely assumed that the nuclear
weapons program could be supported by a third of its current staff," says Oleg Bukharin, an authority
on Russia's nuclear cities at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University.
Hoping to prevent a massive nuclear brain drain, Minatom and DOE are teaming up to launch the
NCI, a $15 million program to create thousands of jobs in Russia's nuclear cities (see sidebar on p.
160). The goal is not just to keep knowledge behind the barbed wire: In facilities scattered across the
former Soviet Union lie enough weapons-grade materials to produce 40,000 nuclear bombs, DOE
estimates. "The challenges are absolutely incredible," says NCI director William Desmond, whose
daunting task is to convince U.S. companies to invest in cities barely acquainted with the free-market
reforms that have transformed Moscow and other major Russian cities.
The stakes are enormous. "Six years of steady improvement in the security of Russia's nuclear stockpile
threatens to unravel under the crushing blow of that country's current economic crisis," says Kenneth
Luongo, director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council. "Not since the collapse
of the old Soviet Union has the situation been so dire."
A tale of two cities
For researchers like Simonenko, today's hardships are a cruel contrast to the Cold War era, when the
Soviet government poured vast resources into the nation's efforts to match the United States' nuclear
might. Within weeks after the obliteration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a team led by Igor Kurchatov,
the father of the Soviet nuclear program, began scouting for a location for a supersecret nuclear
weapons design center. His group eventually settled on a village called Sarov, revered for its mineral
waters and for a monastery established in 1706 and dedicated later to St. Seraphim. The area, just 410
kilometers by rail from Moscow, was sparsely populated.
In winter 1946, Kurchatov ordered 10 physicists working at two Moscow institutes--Laboratory
Number Two, a nuclear research center formed in 1939 that now bears Kurchatov's name, and the
Institute of Chemical Physics--to relocate to Sarov. They were assigned to KB-11, the designation for
the budding nuclear design center, now called the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute for
Experimental Physics (VNIIEF). Sarov disappeared from public maps, even as devout Russians were
still flocking to the monastery. "Pilgrims would come and gather outside the barbed wire fence"
erected around the town, says Dimitrii Sladkov, a towering young man who, although he dresses in
black and wears a long black beard like a Russian Orthodox priest, is assistant director in the nuclear
center's information office. Sladkov, a student of Sarov's history, says that to deter pilgrims from
wasting their time--and prying into its affairs--the center blew up the monastery's two cathedrals in the
early 1950s. All that remains today is the monastery's campanile, the symbol of Sarov.
The physicists who came to live in Sarov--renamed Arzamas-16, a so-called mailbox linked to the city
of Arzamas 35 kilometers to the north--were soon joined by hundreds of new recruits, as Arzamas-16
officials scoured the universities for the best young minds. One was Yuri Trutnev, a physical chemist
who graduated from Leningrad State University in 1950. "When I was chosen to work here, I was told
only that I would work in Middle Russia," he says. "I was told I would have a chance to work with the
best scientists." When Trutnev arrived in February 1951, he reported to a division headed by the
great physicist Yakov Zel'dovich. "Only when I opened the first report did I understand where I had
got to and what I would do. It was a project related to the development of thermonuclear weapons."
Much decorated for his scientific achievements, Trutnev was part of the team that designed the Soviet
Union's first hydrogen bomb, detonated in Kazakhstan in August 1953--just 4 years after the Soviet
Union tested its first atomic bomb, modeled on a U.S. device.
Such work called for the utmost secrecy, and Arzamas-16 was like a prison, a city surrounded by a
double barbed wire fence and guarded by armed troops, with entry and exit restricted by the KGB.
The city experienced nearly total physical isolation. "The only thing we got from outside Sarov was the
fissile materials," says Trutnev, referring to the uranium and plutonium that were purified in other
closed cities. "Everything else was produced onsite," including necessities like food and clothing. For
the first 5 years of the center's existence, most staff members were not even permitted to leave the
city. "When I tried to go on vacation in 1952, my bosses sent me from one boss to another. They tried
to make you spend vacations here at the center," says Trutnev. The center paid a sizable bonus--50% of
one's monthly salary--to those who complied.
As the nuclear arms race gathered steam in the mid-1950s, Soviet officials felt vulnerable having most
of their nuclear weapons scientists concentrated in a single locale. In September 1955, they fissioned
the nuclear weapons team at Arzamas-16, sending 40 theoretical physicists and mathematicians,
followed in 1957 by a second wave of 370 designers and technicians, to a city newly carved from a
spruce forest on a lake about 1400 kilometers southeast of Moscow. This was Chelyabinsk-70, now
renamed Snezhinsk, or snowflake--so remote that even now, a lonely shishkabob hut is about the only
landmark on the road connecting it to Ekaterinburg, 100 kilometers to the north.
Chelyabinsk-70 officials also went on a recruiting drive. Among those they pursued was Vladislav
Nikitin, a student in the nuclear physics department at Moscow State University. In 1958, the Ministry
of Medium Machine Building, the murky name of the Soviet nuclear weapons bureaucracy, "offered
me a job in a Siberian plant or in a premier research institute in the Urals," says Nikitin, now deputy
director for human resources at VNIITF--not much of a choice. "The manager had a ready-made
document--they knew my decision," he says. He did not come to regret it. "We never had a moral
problem with what we were doing," he says. "It was a sacred thing."
For 4 decades the two centers competed with each other to draft new designs for the Soviet arsenal,
with resources unequaled in other research institutes across the country. The insanity may have peaked
in 1961, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. That's when Arzamas-16 tested a 50-megaton
bomb, which released 20 times as much energy as all the bombs in World War II combined. Tested at
the Novaya Zemlya site above the Arctic Circle, the bomb's mushroom cloud billowed 20 kilometers
wide and the flash was seen for thousands of kilometers; the shock wave circled the globe three times.
"It was developed for political reasons, not strategic," says Nikitin.
Both centers also branched out into nonmilitary uses of nuclear explosives, setting off a total of 156
"peaceful" detonations. Trutnev and his colleagues, for instance, developed a charge that would
consume most of its radioactive byproducts during the explosion. They placed it 90 meters under a
river in Kazakhstan and blew open a huge trench that filled with water. "In a year or two, we could
swim and fish there," says Trutnev, who at 71 seems no worse for the experience.
Not to be outdone, Chelyabinsk-70 devised nuclear charges for extinguishing oil fires, blasting ore
deposits, and mapping the Earth. In the 1970s, a team led by scientists from Chelyabinsk-70 divided
Siberia into a 500-square grid, intending to explode charges at each grid point to discern the rock
types in the crust, a project that was halted after 100 explosions. Russia performed its last nuclear test
in 1990; the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed by Russia in 1996 although not yet
ratified by the Russian parliament or the U.S. Senate, would outlaw any further explosions. The treaty
also marked the end of an era in which Russia held its nuclear scientists in high esteem. "The social
environment in the country is changing rapidly," says Nikitin, who is openly nostalgic for the days
when he and his colleagues could conduct peaceful nuclear explosions. "The image of nuclear physics
here has gone from very well respected to a kind of monster."
Opening up to the world
The weapons scientists' fall from grace began long before the test ban treaty finally brought an end to
the ultimate demonstration of their handiwork. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet
Union suddenly eliminated the nuclear cities' main raison d'?tre. Like their counterparts in the U.S.
weapons labs, Russian nuclear scientists were suddenly faced with a new mission: Instead of the
cat-and-mouse game of nuclear deterrence, their main goal became ensuring the reliability and safety
of existing weapons. But unlike their U.S. counterparts, they were forced to take on this role with
limited resources, in a country in economic turmoil. Says VNIITF scientific director Evgeny Avrorin,
"Nuclear weapons are not on the list of priorities in Russia now."
As the labs were trying to adjust to the new era, Russians everywhere were coping with the harsh
realities of life after communism: bread lines and poverty after the ruble's value plummeted in 1991
and 1992. The nuclear cities weathered the crisis reasonably well, at first. "There was no affluence as
you would see on Malibu beach, but they were doing OK," says John Shaner, head of the Center for
International Security Affairs at Los Alamos, who has visited Sarov and Snezhinsk several times since
As conditions in the nuclear cities began to deteriorate, Western analysts began sounding the alarm
about a potential nuclear brain drain. The Russian side fueled those fears: In 1992, for example, the
Kurchatov Institute acknowledged that Libya had offered two of its scientists $2000 a month to work
at its Tajura Nuclear Center, which the Soviet Union had helped Libya build a decade earlier.
Minatom added to Western concerns in the early 1990s when it founded Chetek Corp., a company
composed of scientists from the nuclear cities that offered to conduct nuclear explosions in other
countries for, among other things, incinerating chemical weapons stocks. Although Chetek disappeared
about 4 years ago--a Minatom spokesperson claimed to Science that he has never even heard of the
firm--its formation underlined fears that a proliferation threat was emerging from the post-Soviet
The response from the West was a series of initiatives designed to help Russian weapons scientists
make the difficult transition into civilian research. First off the mark in the United States was DOE,
which runs the United States' own nuclear labs.
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. weapons scientists had begun to reach out to their
former Cold War adversaries. In 1988, U.S. and Soviet weapons experts performed joint underground
nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site and at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan; the aim was to develop
improved techniques for monitoring each country's nuclear tests. These early meetings triggered a
delicate pas de deux between the weapons labs that resulted in a groundbreaking event in 1992, just
months after the Soviet Union dissolved. That February, the directors of the Los Alamos and Lawrence
Livermore national labs visited Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70--cities off limits even to most Russian
citizens (Science, 28 April 1995, p. 488). "The lack of trust quickly evaporated," recalls Avrorin, who
last month stepped down as VNIITF director. "We did not find James Bond among the Americans,
and they did not find horned devils among our side."
The visit sparked an ongoing series of experiments between the weapons scientists, called the
lab-to-lab program, that began with studies on high-energy magnetic fields--an area pioneered by
weapons scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov--and has since branched off into disciplines as
diverse as systems for accounting for nuclear materials and environmental remediation. The
collaborations "are an important confidence-building measure that allows U.S. and Russian scientists to
get to know one another and understand each other's facilities," says Scott Parrish, a policy analyst
with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Both sides have had to tiptoe around certain projects that straddle the border between open and
classified research, however. Particularly touchy is work on ISKRA-5 at VNIIEF, the second most
powerful laser in the world after Livermore's NOVA. Both lasers are designed to test the feasibility of
using inertial confinement fusion as an energy source, and both are also used to study
deuterium-tritium implosions and other phenomena that could yield knowledge useful for modeling
nuclear weapons. "We have contacts with Livermore, we exchange experimental results, but we
haven't had any joint experiments. The work at these facilities is in a so-called sensitive area," says
project scientist Sergei Garanin. "Both sides have national security issues, secrets that should not be
shared," adds Nikitin.
VNIIEF's ambitions for the pricey laser facility suggest that the government, at least on paper, is
willing to commit major funding to maintaining stockpile reliability. To keep up with Livermore,
which is building its next-generation laser, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), VNIIEF is laying the
groundwork for ISKRA-6, a niobium-based laser. VNIIEF hopes to have ISKRA-6's first module,
dubbed Luch (Russian for beamlet, named after NIF's Beamlet module), up and running by 2001, says
Garanin, "if the financial crisis doesn't postpone it." Indeed, Western experts are skeptical that Russia
will ever come up with the $300 million needed to build the rest of ISKRA-6.
While the informal lab-to-lab collaborations were taking shape, the United States, the European Union,
Japan, and Russia banded together in November 1992 to create the most ambitious effort so far to
provide a lifeline to weapons scientists: the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). The
center has committed $190 million to projects employing 21,000 weapons experts across the former
Soviet Union. About 17% of that sum has gone to Sarov and Snezhinsk. "Nobody has become rich
thanks to ISTC," says theoretical physicist Boris Vodolaga, deputy director for international
collaboration and conversion at VNIITF, "but clothing for children and medicines have been
purchased with ISTC money."
Some scientists don't like to imagine their lives today if the ISTC hadn't come to the rescue. "The
ISTC project changed my life," says Sergey Shumsky, a senior research fellow at the Lebedev Physics
Institute in Moscow. Shumsky, a former plasma physicist, is part of a team led by Serge Terekhov at
Snezhinsk that 3 years ago won a $600,000 ISTC grant to design neural nets for doing everything
from searching the Internet to discerning explosions from both nuclear devices and natural events such
as earthquakes and meteoroid strikes. Their computer program for analyzing seismic data is so precise,
he claims, that "one can even locate the mine shaft where an explosion took place." The team is now
negotiating licensing deals with Russian companies. Snezhinsk is also doing environmental studies,
including a highly regarded ISTC-sponsored project to reconstruct events surrounding an explosion 40
years ago at a nuclear waste facility, which blanketed a nearby swath of land with radioactive isotopes
(see sidebar on p. 164).
But Terekhov and other researchers, particularly in Snezhinsk, express a growing disenchantment with
ISTC. The center "just does nothing to promote commercialization of projects and their outcomes,"
says Yury Lazarev, who managed a project completed a year ago that laid the theoretical groundwork
for a microwave laser capable of delivering short, intense pulses. Instead of funding projects for 2 years
or so, Vodolaga argues, ISTC should provide long-term support for worthy projects, shepherding them
to the market. ISTC deputy executive director Sergey Zykov says, however, that such an approach
would limit the number of people his organization could help.
Indeed, neither of the two heavyweight programs aiding weapons scientists--ISTC and DOE's
Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention--"has yet succeeded in fostering the establishment of a single
self-sustaining commercial enterprise employing a significant number of people in a nuclear city," a
group led by Princeton nonproliferation guru Frank von Hippel points out in the September/October
1998 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All of this has heaped a heavier burden on the
newly formed NCI, which will focus exclusively on creating jobs in the cities that support the nuclear
What will tomorrow bring?
If any one event captured the new, darkening mood in the nuclear cities, it was the tragic death 2
years ago of VNIITF director Vladimir Nechai. In October 1996, as winter was approaching, Nechai
had no money to pay salaries for his 10,500 employees. Almost 2 months earlier, he had written to
then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and to the head of Minatom, decrying the $20 million debt
the government owed VNIITF. His letter produced a response: In late October, Minatom transferred
enough money to VNIITF's bank account to pay pensions and salaries. But, according to a Minatom
spokesperson, the institute's account had been frozen temporarily because it had not paid its utility
bills, and it could not withdraw the money right away. On 31 October Nechai shot and killed himself.
"It was quite a shock," says Shumsky. "Most people respected him; he was young and energetic."
The funeral the next day drew thousands of mourners, but the Kremlin appeared to pay little attention:
No government officials showed up for the event. Prominent Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky,
leader of the opposition Yabloko Party, noted that fact in an editorial in The New York Times.
"Nechai sacrificed his life to call attention to the plight of Russian science," Yavlinsky wrote. "And he
was not heard."
A different kind of tragedy shook Sarov 8 months later. Alexander Zakharov, a 45-year-old senior
scientist at VNIIEF, was working alone on a secret experiment with what institute officials refer to
only as a bench-top "critical assembly." Zakharov was holding the assembly in his hands when it
suddenly "began to work," says VNIIEF's Sladkov, drenching Zakharov in an estimated 600 rems of
radiation--thousands of times the dose most people receive in an entire year. "He immediately
understood what happened," says Sladkov. "He knew he was severely damaged and was becoming very
sick." Zakharov was flown to Moscow for treatment but died 2 days later. A Minatom investigation,
which included interviews with Zakharov on his deathbed, concluded that the researcher had turned
off safety features that would have prevented the accident. VNIIEF staff accept the finding that
Zakharov was to blame, but they say the incident added to the malaise in Sarov. "It caused a lot of
heartache in the town and at the institute," says Sladkov.
Since those twin tragedies, researchers in both nuclear cities have become increasingly outspoken in
demanding better conditions. Last July, 3500 VNIIEF staff members went on an unprecedented
daylong strike; in November, 3000 of their colleagues in Snezhinsk followed suit. "Life has become
more full with hardships and an absence of confidence in the future," says Avrorin, who resumed his
previous post as VNIITF's scientific director last month when theoretical physicist Georgy Rykovanov
became the institute's new director.
Western experts say they know little about the ongoing classified research in the nuclear cities and
how it fits with Russia's emerging stockpile stewardship program. "We do know that people are still
computing and explosive shots get fired; experiments are going on at Novaya Zemlya, even if we do
not know exactly what they are doing," says Los Alamos's Shaner. "We can guess that their
computations are not going on anything like the teraflop machines coming online at the U.S. labs.
They are certainly trying to develop some kind of stockpile stewardship program, but we do not know
a lot of details about it."
But even for those scientists still working on weapons research, life has changed. One major handicap
is a lack of current journals; VNIITF now can only manage subscriptions to a few major ones. "We
have a constant feeling of information hunger," says Vladimir Ananiychuk, head of VNIITF's
information department. And like their colleagues throughout the rest of Russia, many scientists in the
nuclear cities--particularly those not on Western grants--have less time for research because they
supplement their income by working second and third jobs. One scientist in Snezhinsk manages the
local department store; another in Sarov has started a company that makes margarine.
If many nuclear scientists were to lose their jobs and find themselves in dire straits, says Vodolaga,
"nobody can guarantee that won't be used as a lever by terrorists, who would be willing to avail
themselves of the experts here." He points out, however, that the institute has locked up the foreign
passports of scientists privy to state secrets and "will never authorize a trip" to Libya or other
countries deemed a proliferation threat.
Another sobering restraint that may be keeping nuclear scientists in Russia is fear for their own lives.
The CNS's Parrish says that weapons scientists have told him that colleagues are unwilling to take jobs
in such countries "because they fear that they would be killed after finishing whatever work they
contracted to carry out in order to keep the program in question a secret." CNS, which keeps a
database on nuclear trafficking, has not heard of any cases of Russian nuclear scientists going to rogue
nations to work on weapons programs. However, "there is now increasing concern that some Russian
scientists could be serving as consultants" via e-mail and other forms of communication, says Parrish.
"A large degree of assistance could be rendered in this sort of way without anyone traveling to Iran or
An even higher security risk may be the young, poorly paid guards who patrol the fences surrounding
Snezhinsk and the other nuclear cities, says CNS director William Potter. "They are largely ignorant
about proliferation concerns and are exceptionally vulnerable to recruitment by organized crime," he
says. Some observers say there is only one foolproof way to bottle up the makings of a bomb. "To
ensure that no one in the former Soviet Union could, in any way, provide Iran or Iraq with scientific
knowledge would require the reinstitution of many of the hated features of a police state," argues
Susan Eisenhower, chair of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Few people want to return to that kind of rule, but one reminder of it--the fences that separate the
nuclear cities from the outside world--is likely to persist. About 10 years ago, says Avrorin, Minatom
officials began debating whether to take down the perimeter fences but leave up the electrified ones
surrounding the fissile materials. At the time, he says, inhabitants had a mixed opinion about whether
the fences should stay. They remain in place, and "if a referendum were held today to take them down,
I'd predict it would be defeated almost unanimously," says Avrorin. The fences, he says, have shielded
the cities from the organized crime that pervades the rest of Russia and have deterred petty thugs:
"Nobody is afraid to go outside after dark."
Thus fenced off from the outside world are the ingredients for making nuclear bombs and the chefs
that know the recipes. "These people are endearing," says Tom Owens of the U.S. Civilian Research
and Development Foundation, a fund that supports R&D collaborations between U.S. scientists and
former Soviet weapons scientists. "You have to pinch yourself to remember what they were doing 10
years ago." But what will they be doing 10 years from now?
Volume 283, Number 5399 Issue of 8 Jan 1999, pp. 158 - 164
©1998 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.