Russian Weapons Labs Brace for American Invasion

WASHINGTON--A hundred U.S. scientists will travel next year to Russia's two main nuclear weapons institutes in an effort to spur collaborative research and bolster sagging morale among weapons researchers there. But while the work should augment efforts to turn Soviet swords into plowshares, it is unlikely to be more than a stopgap measure for scientists who once enjoyed a productive and comfortable way of life but are now facing severe hardships.

The $2500 travel grants will be provided by the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), a nonprofit agency that funds collaborations between scientists in the United States and the former Soviet Union (FSU). The money will go to U.S. scientists working on joint projects funded by a second organization for defense conversion: the International Science and Technology Center, which so far has sustained almost 14,000 FSU weapons scientists.

The program comes at a time when conditions in the two formerly closed cities, to which access is still rigidly controlled, may be at their worst. In the wake of the severe economic crisis, observers say that a gloom deeper than winter darkness has settled on the Federal Nuclear Center for Experimental Physics in Arzamas-16, now called Sarov, and the Federal Nuclear Center for Technical Physics (VNIITF) in Chelyabinsk-70, now Snezhinsk. In Soviet days, many scientists were lured to these remote facilities with promises of decent pay, housing, and schools, says Evgeny Avrorin, a physicist who will serve 2 years as VNIITF director following the suicide in October of its previous director, Vladimir Nechai. Nowadays, however, obtaining even the necessities of life is a scramble.

Although Avrorin welcomes the travel grants, he says they will do little to meet a government mandate that VNIITF, by 2000, earn half its revenues from outside sources. Right now, he says, the institute gets 15% of its budget from nongovernmental sources. To boost their share of outside funding, says CRDF executive director Gerson Sher, the institutes must change how they do their work. The Russians are peddling what they have rather than what Western companies want "because they have jobs they want to save," Sher says. Getting the institutes to become market savvy, he says, "will take some discussion and some disappointment."