WASHINGTON, D.C.--Hundreds of Russian nuclear scientists may soon find themselves writing commercial software in a novel bid to keep their weapons expertise from falling into the wrong hands. The deal, in the works for months, may herald other initiatives aimed at blocking weapons proliferation in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks.
The arrangement--announced here on 4 October by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, and their Russian corporate partner--is salve for a bruised U.S. nonproliferation effort. In April, the Bush Administration proposed cutting $100 million from a raft of DOE programs to improve nuclear security in Russia, from securing plutonium stockpiles against potential smugglers to helping nuclear physicists find peaceful work (Science, 1 June, p. 1632). Last month's events, however, appear to have built stronger support for U.S. nonproliferation efforts. The attacks "crystallized the need to intensify cooperation" to keep weapons expertise out of terrorists' hands, says U.S. Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA), an expert on Russia.
A Russian company, LUXOFT, along with its U.S. partner CTG Inc., will take the lead in retraining the scientists, whose salaries will be paid by a $500,000 grant from the DOE's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program. Previous projects in the $25-million-a-year IPP have typically paired U.S. companies directly with Russian defense scientists. Nevertheless, says the DOE's Steven K. Black, turning weapons scientists into computer programmers "epitomizes the goal of the IPP."
The details of the Kurchatov project, which were being finalized in Moscow on 11 September as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon burned, may also help to stem a decade-long decline at the institute. Its 5000 scientists, half the peak number from the 1980s, are seriously underpaid, says Boris Stavisski, a nuclear physicist who heads Kurchatov's "Technopark," which seeks to commercialize the institute's research. Although fewer than two dozen scientists will be involved in the project's first phase, LUXOFT managing director Dmitry Loschinin says his firm expects to retrain 150 scientists over the next 2 years, and perhaps 500 by 2006.
The Bush Administration is expected to propose several other initiatives to expand R&D collaboration and nonproliferation programs at a summit next month in Moscow between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.