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Nuclear News - 05/17/99
RANSAC Nuclear News, 17 May, 1999

(Feature article in Arms Control Today by Senator Biden)

Maintaining the Proliferation Fight In the Former Soviet Union
Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Arms Control Today
March 1999
(for personal use only)

With the end of the Cold War, the immediate threat of a nuclearholocaust between the United States and Russia has receded, but thethreat of a nuclear disaster remains. Today, there is a real risk thatformer Soviet weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or the technologyneeded to build them, will find their way to rogue states, terroristgroups or even criminal organizations. If such weapons should ever beused, their impact will be catastrophic. It will hardly matter that"only" one or two cities at a time may be so hideously incinerated.

The war against these "loose nukes" and "brain drain" threats is asimportant as any war in our history. It is a war fought with securityassistance-financial and technical-to states of the former Soviet Unionrather than with armed force. Its battles are against unemployment andlax security in the vast complex of former Soviet WMD facilities. Itsfronts are an array of firms and institutes and Russia's 10 "nuclearcities," as well the international frontiers where smugglers try to movesensitive materials to states like Iran, Iraq or Libya.

This is a war that the United States dares not lose. In December 1998,the Russian press reported that the chief of Russia's Federal SecurityService in the Chelyabinsk region said that employees at one sensitiveplant had tried to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclearmaterial. A month earlier, 3,000 workers at Chelyabinsk-70, the nuclearcity now called Snezhinsk and one of the country's two nuclear weapondesign centers, held a protest over unpaid wages.<1> In 1996, thedirector of that facility committed suicide in despair over hisinability to pay his personnel. The threat remains real, kept at bay inno small measure by the array of assistance programs, U.S. and other,that have responded to the changed security environment following thecollapse of the Soviet Union. Still, more must be done.

In his January 1999 State of the Union address, President Bill Clintonannounced an Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative that will expand andstrengthen U.S. security assistance programs by 60 percent overthe next five years. (See Table 1.) In its fiscal year (FY) 2000 budgetrequest, the administration requested over $1 billion for theseprograms. While the administration's request for extra funding isdesperately needed and merits wholehearted support, it still does notmatch the level of the threat facing the United States.

As the United States moves to increase funding for new threat reductionprograms-such as the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which seeks to helpRussia to downsize its nuclear weapons complex without throwingscientists out on the street-it is important also to support and improveexisting efforts. One of the earliest Department of Energy (DOE)programs, Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP), was begun in1994 to address the threat to U.S. non-proliferation goals posed byformer Soviet weapons scientists and technicians who, driven by theircountry's worsening economic straits, might offer their expertise andknow-how to countries of proliferation concern. The IPP program, acooperative arrangement between U.S. and former Soviet nationallaboratories and other institutions, has sought to channel thefirst-rate technological capacities of the latter countries intoproductive, non-military endeavors.

Despite its relative youth-IPP is only five years old-the program hasbeen a frequent target of attacks. Its future has been imperiled attimes by wildly inconsistent funding and by allegations ofmismanagement. As the United States seeks to strengthen its securityassistance programs, the IPP program has once again come under thespotlight. The scrutiny is welcome, but it is important to understandthat this program has served U.S. interests and that its maintenance andimprovement are key at this time of strained U.S.-Russian relations.

The GAO's Report

On February 22, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report onthe IPP program that was again critical of program management.<2>Newspapers quoted a statement by Senate Foreign Relations CommitteeChairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), who commissioned the GAO study, that DOEfailure to implement reforms recommended by the GAO would "jeopardizecontinued support" for the program and also "cast doubt" on the wisdomof the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative.<3>

These stories made it sound as though threat reduction efforts were oncemore in danger. In my view, however, what we are actually witnessing arethe normal growing pains of a basically successful program. I believethat the IPP program and other non-proliferation assistance efforts bothdeserve and will obtain the Congress's continued support.

The IPP program's objective is to foster-as quickly as possible-non-military employment for weapons scientists in the former SovietUnion by assisting them to develop marketable ideas that can be producedin joint commercial ventures with Western companies. The GAO reportnotes that as of December 1998, the IPP program had funded over 400projects-over 200 in its first year alone-at about 170 institutes andorganizations in four countries, more than 80 percent of which are inRussia.<4> Thousands of Russian scientists have found at least part-timeemployment through IPP projects, and the result has been to lessenthe temptation to sell their goods and expertise to rogue states. TheGAO report discusses those results as follows:

Officials from three institutes told us that the IPP program hadprevented their laboratory or institute from shutting down and reducedthe likelihood that scientists would be forced to seek other employment.A representative from Sarov [the new name for Arzamas-16, Russia'sequivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory] told us that without theIPP program, the situation at the institute would be a disaster^┼. Someinstitute officials told us that the benefits of the IPP program wentbeyond financial support^┼[and included] how to do business with UnitedStates.<5>

The GAO noted that DOE's national laboratories "have made great stridesin helping to `open up' [former Soviet] institutes," and went on tostate that "the program has been successful in employing weaponsscientists through research and development programs." The GAO concludedthat the overall effort is "in our national security interests."<6>

Why, then, was the GAO critical of the IPP program? First, it foundadministrative lapses in DOE, such as not knowing how many scientistswere engaged in particular projects, spending too much money in theUnited States and too little in the former Soviet Union, and allowingRussia to charge taxes on the assistance we provided. Secondly, it foundmany projects that had little or no chance of ever becoming commerciallyviable. Given that the IPP program is supposed to find Western investorsfor the projects it funds, the GAO's point was that the program was notachieving its long-term goals.

The GAO is right. But what the investigators found was actually the tailend of the success story. They found a program that, in five shortyears, successfully reached into 170 former Soviet institutes and helpedemploy thousands of scientists. The IPP program made those criticalcontacts and brought a message of hope that resonated throughout thecommunity of Russian WMD experts. It told them that we understoodtheir need both to survive economically and to maintain self-respect asskilled professionals.

The GAO's Critique

The GAO's critique is timely and useful. After five years, the IPPprogram is ready for some tightened administration. We should take care,however not to sacrifice the program's particular benefits, especiallythose that flow from the lab-to-lab relationships that DOE's nationallaboratories have been able to provide.

The lack of tight financial management was a particular concern in theGAO report. Over half the funds in the IPP program have gone to U.S.national laboratories, and only 37 percent to the firms or institutes inthe former Soviet Union that the program assists. Many of the funds thatreach Russia and elsewhere have been used to pay taxes, instituteoverhead costs, or procurement of equipment and travel, with oftensurprisingly small amounts ever getting to the scientists themselves. Itturns out that DOE and its national laboratories managing particularprojects were sometimes unaware of just how the funds they dispensedwere actually being disbursed, although they knew that, on average,scientists in Russia received less than half the funds that were sentthere.<7>

Now that the IPP program is maturing, more funds should reach recipientsin the former Soviet Union. The U.S. national laboratories, inparticular, ought to be able to reduce their administrative costs. Atthe same time, however, it is a fact of economic life that U.S. nationallaboratory scientists who oversee IPP projects command much highersalaries than do their Russian counterparts, given Russia's depressedeconomy. The tighter management that GAO rightly recommends will not beachieved, moreover, without devoting some of these high-cost personnelto that task. Perhaps it would be cost effective for the IPP program toestablish a small Moscow office to keep closer track of projects with aminimum of travel costs. Another possibility to consider might be acloser relationship with the State Department-administered InternationalScience and Technology Centers (ISTC), which are already located inMoscow and Kyiv.

The problem of Russian taxation is also a long-standing frustration. Wewant our non-proliferation assistance to provide maximum help to"at-risk" scientists. Host-country national and local authorities maysee IPP as something of a "cash cow," however, especially if they arestrapped for foreign exchange and have difficulty collecting taxes ontheir citizens' less-visible sources of income. The IPP program hasoperated at times under a temporary agreement that deferred Russiantaxes, but the GAO found that some scientists were unaware of theagreement and that Russian authorities called it null and void at onepoint.<8> The Russian Duma has yet to approve a permanent agreement,signed in 1992, that would exempt some U.S. aid from taxes.

Further steps should be taken promptly to relieve aid recipients fromrequirements to pay Russian taxes on IPP assistance. If the 1992agreement cannot gain Russian approval, perhaps a bilateral agreementcan be reached for the IPP program alone. If that, too, is not possible,then DOE should give more serious consideration to routing itsassistance through the ISTC program, which already has anintergovernmental agreement exempting its aid from national taxes.

The GAO was especially concerned over cases in which IPP program andproject managers did not know-and in some cases did not wish even toask-precisely who was benefiting from IPP assistance or what theirbackgrounds were.<9> In some projects, even the number of former Sovietpersonnel receiving assistance was unknown. As a result, it may well bethat some projects involve aid recipients who are not really the"at-risk" experts whom the IPP program intends to assist, even thoughthey are affiliated with institutes that may have been involved in theformer Soviet WMD complex. DOE already has guidelines that requireproject managers to provide information on the recipients of assistance,and it has rightly promised to re-emphasize that guidance.

If most of the funds for a project are going to persons who do not, infact, have a background related to weapons of mass destruction orlong-range missiles, then the executive branch should consider whetherthe project still merits funding under this program. If funds are goingto persons who are still working on such weapons or missiles, then theexecutive branch should consider whether those persons should continueto receive funds under this program.

Notice, however, that I did not suggest such projects should not befunded. Rather, they must be evaluated in light of the legal authorityfor the IPP program and of the overall non-proliferation goals of theUnited States. It may make sense, for example, to fund some projects inwhich former weapons designers are employed along with many persons whohave other backgrounds. That may be the only way to make such projectscommercially viable. After all, even in the United States, formernuclear weapons designers have not found it easy to succeed withstart-up companies competing in the civilian economy. Even ifforeign investors provide funding and basic business sense, Russianpartners with some business acumen may be needed to bring nuclear-cityresidents-who have led the most sheltered of lives inside these"closed cities"-into the market economy. Given U.S. non-proliferationgoals, moreover, the need to keep certain former Soviet weaponsdesigners gainfully employed may outweigh concerns over cost.

Likewise, it may make sense, in some cases, to provide part-timeemployment for persons who are also employed in work on nuclear weapons,on long-range missiles, or on chemical or biological defenses. Continuedchemical or biological work of an offensive nature would violatetreaties to which the former Soviet states are parties, and the IPPprogram must not subsidize treaty violations. Neither should IPPsubsidize people who engage in activities warranting U.S. tradesanctions, such as the provision of technical assistance to Iran'slong-range missile programs. Rather, U.S. assistance should require andenable recipients to turn away from such undesirable activities. Thescientist who is good enough to still be employed by the Russian defenseestablishment may be precisely the person who should not be left on themarket if his government is buying only half his time. That scientistmay also be in a position to help the United States reach other weaponsspecialists who might be tempted to misuse their talents.

One especially important aspect of the president's Expanded ThreatReduction Initiative is a major effort to find alternative employmentfor Russia's biological weapons experts. The microbiologists and otherscientists who built the Soviet Union's massive biological warfareestablishment are highly expert. They are quite capable of doingresearch and development that would improve public health and agronomyin Russia and around the world. But they would be equally capable ofassisting rogue states to wreak massive destruction if the United Statesand other countries do not enable them to survive in non-militarypursuits. The administration's new initiative will not provide enoughfunds to fully employ Russia's biological weapons experts, but it willenable the Department of State, with help from the departments ofAgriculture and Health and Human Services, to make a significant start.That will help give us the time we so desperately need in which toimprove our capability to combat those threats.

It also may be reasonable to permit institutes that employ persons whoreceive IPP funding to devote a reasonable percentage of those funds tooverhead costs. That is a common practice in the United States as well,and our non-proliferation interests may be well served by enabling aninstitute to remain afloat. After all, just think what would happen ifthe nuclear weapons experts at Arzamas-16 or Chelyabinsk-70 all hadto seek work elsewhere. The United States rightly supports the announcedintent of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) to downsize by 50percent its massive nuclear weapons complex. But we have a vitalnon-proliferation interest in helping MINATOM, through the new NuclearCities Initiative, to provide a "soft landing" for those who will losetheir jobs in the process.

The point is that these decisions should be made on a rational basis,rather than through bureaucratic inattention to where IPP funds aregoing and how they are being spent. It made sense, when the IPPprogram was new, to devote maximum attention to getting hundreds ofprojects off the ground. Now it makes sense for IPP to improve projectadministration. Hands-on management may also help more IPP fundingrecipients to run a tight ship from the business standpoint, and therebyto attract foreign investment.

The Problem of Dual-Use Technology

Finally, the GAO is correct in recommending that the IPP program"consider all military applications of projects to ensure that usefuldefense related information is not unintentionally transferred."<10> TheGAO warns "that nine of the [72] nuclear-related projects we reviewedcould have dual-use implications." At the same time, however, the sixprojects actually cited in the GAO report suggest that no significantdefense information was transferred.<11>

The first project cited by the GAO report involves a protective coatingmaterial being developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory, which couldimprove corrosion resistance on aircraft bodies, that a Russianinstitute is currently testing. The GAO states that the test samplesprovided by Los Alamos could be analyzed by Russian scientists and usedto develop a similar material. Russia, however, already incorporatesthis technology on some of its aircraft. DOE officials have stated thatthis project was a basic materials science project. Any such project,whether it improves corrosion resistance or creates a more efficientfuel cell, poses a potential of both military and civilian applications.If former nuclear weapons scientists-be they American or Russian-are toput their training to use on high technology projects other than nuclearweapons, they are very likely to work on materials science. If we closeoff that avenue for fear of subsidizing projects from which the Russian(or American) military could benefit, then we may find ourselves back atsquare one with the problem of how to keep Russia's nuclear weaponsexperts from accepting more dangerous offers.

The GAO report also cites two Los Alamos National Laboratory-fundedprojects at Chelyabinsk-70 which have a potential application tomilitary aircraft by improving the fabrication of jet engine turbinecomponents. General Electric, one of the leading manufacturers of bothcivilian and military aircraft engines, is investing in the projects.According to DOE, the Russians are more interested in making improvedautomobile wheels, and to that end are using equipment that wasoriginally intended for the manufacture of nuclear weapons components.Here again, it is hard to fault the IPP program if we are trulyserious about finding high-technology employment for Russia's formernuclear weapons specialists.

Additionally, the GAO cites two other IPP projects that focused onRussian electromagnetic absorbing materials technologies. DOE hoped thatthese technologies could improve air safety by reducing ground clutteraround airports and also improve CAT scans and related medical analyses.The projects, which were recently cancelled, also had potential militaryapplications, but the fact is they dealt with existing Russiantechnology that was being investigated for potential American salesapplications.

Finally, the GAO report warns that IPP's funding of "high data rateelectronic links among some of Russia's closed nuclear cities and DOE'snational laboratories^┼could also indirectly support the collaboration ofRussian weapons laboratories." DOE views such a risk as highly unlikely,given that the communications links with Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70are open lines for Internet and e-mail communications. Given the vastinvestment that the Soviet Union made in its nuclear weapons complex, itseems likely that its two premier laboratories have long had securelinks for secret communication of nuclear weapons design information.The impact of the IPP communications links is much more likely to be anopening up of the Russian labs than a significant increase in theirnuclear weapons design capabilities. In addition, the new links are putto good use by the ISTC program and DOE's Materials Protection, Controland Accounting (MPC&A) program that helps Russia maintain the securityof its vast and dangerous stockpile of fissile material. On balance,therefore, it appears likely that DOE has made sensible decisions on allof these potentially dual-use projects.

Senator Helms' warning that the GAO recommendations must be implementedsent a stern message that DOE should pay attention, and I believe thedepartment is paying attention. In responding to GAO's draft report, DOEconcurred completely with 10 of the 11 recommendations. The GAO's 11threcommendation-that the Nuclear Cities Initiative not be expanded beyondthe three cities where the program will begin (Sarov, formerlyArzamas-16; Snezhinsk, formerly Chelyabinsk-70; and Zheleznogorsk,formerly Kraznoyarsk-26)-was accepted with qualification. While DOEagrees on the need to move carefully, it "does not want to preclude thepossibility of accomplishing significant reductions in nuclear weaponsrelated activities in another closed nuclear city should the opportunityarise to assist in the shutdown of facilities there."<12>

That is a sensible approach, especially given the need to help all ofRussia's nuclear cities find employment for downsized workforces. Thethree initial sites are the cities with which DOE has the most extensiveties, and therefore the cities at which the chances for success may bethe greatest. But if significant layoffs begin at some of the otherseven cities, the Nuclear Cities Initiative may have to expand, at leaston a small scale, if only to keep hope alive and to encourage theirnuclear weapons experts not to accept offers from rogue states for jobsor contracts. Given the vital support these programs provide to U.S.non-proliferation goals, I believe that even conservative senators willconclude that both the IPP program and the Expanded Threat ReductionInitiative deserve our support.

The Future of Security Assistance

Wars are not cheap, and the war against proliferation in the formerSoviet Union is far better fought with the help of arms control andassistance programs than on a real battlefield. The United States cannotwin the war against "loose nukes," "loose chemicals" and "loosepathogens" unless we give our government the means to fight. Given thetremendous stakes in this war, we must move forward. Few things willenhance U.S. security more in the years to come than our efforts now toassist Russia in reducing its immense stockpile of nuclear weapons,downsizing its vast WMD complex and redirecting its facilities andpersonnel to non-military pursuits.

One question that hangs like a sword of Damocles over all our efforts iswhether they even approach the scale that is needed to keep up to100,000 former Soviet experts in weapons of mass destruction gainfullyemployed in socially useful professions. Last year, Congress mandated anexecutive branch study of whether current programs like IPP, with theiremphasis upon fostering commercially viable ventures to providelong-term employment, can meet the short-term need to reach such alarge, at-risk population. That study has not been completed, so theverdict is still out. My strong expectation, however, is that existingprograms will not suffice. For this year, the task for Congress is tomaintain those programs and to support the Expanded Threat ReductionInitiative. For next year and for years to come, however, the need is tothink outside the box of existing programs.

Congress seems determined to spend close to $2 billion per year on anational missile defense system that may defend America against only ahandful of incoming warheads. Surely we ought to spend at least thatamount to guard against the leakage of former Soviet nuclear, chemicalor biological weapons-as well as the technology that could enable othersto build such weapons-and their advanced delivery systems. A rogue statewith ICBMs might well be deterred by the certainty of devastating U.S.retaliation. But a rogue state with nuclear weapons would have manyother delivery options, some of which might make it much harder todetermine the national origin of an attack. A ballistic missile defensewill not avert catastrophe for so much as a day, if we should fail tomaintain that safety net around the former Soviet Union's weapons ofmass destruction.

1. According to Matthew Bunn, workers complained of "constantundernourishment, insufficient medical service, inability to buyclothing and footwear for children or to pay for their education." Hisarticle, "Loose Nukes Fears: Anecdotes of the Current Crisis," GlobalBeat, December 5, 1998, also discusses several other disturbingincidents.

2. General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Committee onForeign Relations, U.S. Senate (GAO/RCED-99-54), NuclearNonproliferation: Concerns with DOE's Efforts to Reduce the Risks Posedby Russia's Unemployed Weapons Scientists, Washington: February 1999.

3. Judith Miller, "Bombs-to-Plowshares Program Criticized," The NewYorkTimes, February 22, 1999, p. A8; Walter Pincus, "GAO Criticizes Effortto Keep Russian Weapons Scientists at Home," The Washington Post,February 23, 1999, p. A-7.

4. GAO, op cit., pp. 2, 5 and 22.

5. Ibid., p. 36.

6. Ibid., pp. 3 and 60.

7. Ibid., p. 31.

8. Ibid., p. 33.

9. Ibid., pp. 39-41.

10. Ibid., p. 62.

11. Ibid., pp. 44-46.

12. Ibid., p. 104.

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