U.S., Russia Step Up Efforts to Employ Nuke Specialists

WASHINGTON, D.C.--As many as 50,000 nuclear weapons scientists, engineers, and technicians in Russia may need new jobs in the next 5 years, Department of Energy (DOE) officials said at a briefing here today. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and others highlighted a new $15 million program, the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), that hopes to create lasting civilian work for at least some portion of these specialists--and, perhaps, prevent them from being driven by Russia's economic woes to proliferation threats such as Iraq and Libya.

Announced 24 July by Vice President Al Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the bilateral NCI aims to boost U.S. private-sector investment in Russia's once-top-secret nuclear cities (ScienceNOW, 28 July). Next year the program will focus on three cities: Sarov and Snezhinsk, which designed Russia's nuclear arsenal, and Zheleznogorsk, a center for processing weapons-grade plutonium. Scientists at Sarov and Snezhinsk went on strike earlier this year, after not receiving their salaries for months.

"My vision is that we would like to create one major business activity" creating at least 200 jobs in each city, says NCI director William J. Desmond. Officials plan to expand the program, expected to last up to 7 years, to as many as seven more nuclear cities in 2000 and beyond. NCI is gathering ideas for how to go about setting up businesses in the nuclear cities and plans to put out a formal solicitation to the private sector next year.

Desmond and others acknowledge that helping Russia's nuclear cities retool is a big challenge. On a recent trip to Snezhinsk, for example, a U.S. delegation toured an eyeglass factory that had just expanded its operations--without testing whether the market could sustain increased output. One expert concluded that the Snezhinsk firm was "just upstream of a waterfall," says delegation member Ken Ames of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. The NCI could help advise or restructure such businesses, he notes: "Saving jobs is just as important as creating jobs."