Selling Once-Secret, Once-Soviet Science

Russia's beleaguered nuclear scientists are about to get help from a new program to get them into commercially productive research. Announced 24 July in Moscow by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russia Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) aims to boost U.S. private-sector investment in the once-top-secret cities.

Times are tough in these towns. Last week, 3500 workers at the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov (Arzamas-16), 400 kilometers east of Moscow, struck for a day to protest months of unpaid wages. And scientists from several centers are suspected of aiding Iran's missile program.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other agencies have tried to keep Russia's nuclear scientists engaged in more peaceful pursuits. DOE's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program, for instance, is spending $30 million this year on non-weapons-related projects that might be commercialized and just announced $3.1 million for nine projects at Sarov. But "the magnitude of the problem is so large," says Janet Hauber, NCI manager at DOE, that "we don't think the [IPP] model will respond quickly enough."

Under the initiative, U.S. agencies and Russia's Minatom will lure investment in projects at three nuclear cities--Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk. There's no new government money for NCI, says Hauber, but hopes are that there will be enough private-sector enthusiasm to expand it to seven more cities.