Spotting Nuclear Weapons Scientists
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Spotting Nuclear Weapons Scientists

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In its most recent report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) argues the country may be close to being able to develop a nuclear weapon. The agency also claims that important technical help was provided by an outside expert, identified by other sources as Vyacheslav Danilenko, a researcher who, until 1989, had worked for three decades at a leading Soviet nuclear weapons research and design institute. Danilenko denies helping Iran with its nuclear program, and says that his work at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics (VNIITF) wasn’t connected to nuclear weapons.

A rogue Soviet nuclear expert helping Iran build a weapon is something the United States has feared since the end of the Cold War. And it has been a reasonable fear. As the Soviet economy crashed, even weapon scientists faced potential layoffs, salary delays, and low wages. The United States set up cooperative employment programs to discourage poor ex-Soviet nuclear scientists from selling their skills to would-be proliferators. Since then, the United States has worked to contain proliferation by re-employing experts with skills relevant to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This effort has expanded to Iraq and Libya, and some in Washington hope to include North Korea and one day Pakistan.

During the 1990s, the United States created five main programs, each of which was tasked with reducing the proliferation threat of WMD knowledge from the former Soviet Union. The Departments of Defense, Energy, and State housed these programs, and collectively they formed a piece of what is known as Cooperative Threat Reduction. These programs were supposed to focus on scientists with weapons skills. Some efforts focused on providing temporary income through short-term research contracts, and others tried to retrain and then re-employ nuclear experts in non-weapons jobs, ideally in the commercial sector. These efforts faced the same problem that’s at the root of the current controversy over Danilenko: How do you determine who is a nuclear weapons scientist? And, how do you identify the weapons expert who is willing to proliferate?

When the Soviet Union first collapsed, the legacy of the Cold War meant that it wasn’t possible to target specific WMD experts for nonproliferation cooperation. Russia was reluctant to provide a list of its WMD scientists and their skills, mostly for national security reasons. Instead of insisting on such a list, which might have stalled cooperation indefinitely, some U.S. programs avoided the issue, while others adopted shortcuts for judging whether Soviet scientists seeking funds from these redirection programs were WMD experts.

For example, some programs relied on the “trickle-down effect.” For its re-employment initiatives, the U.S. Defense Department worked with mostly ex-Soviet conventional weapons institutes, reasoning that successful personnel conversion here would set an example and encourage WMD institutes to be involved in later conversion efforts. An Energy Department program funded community development projects and job creation for anyone living in one of Russia's closed nuclear cities, which were home to the main nuclear weapons research and design institutes. The program’s rationale was that improving the general standard of living for weapons experts and their families would, in turn, discourage proliferation.

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