"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Maintaining the Proliferation Fight In the Former Soviet Union

Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

With the end of the Cold War, the immediate threat of a nuclear holocaust between the United States and Russia has receded, but the threat of a nuclear disaster remains. Today, there is a real risk that former Soviet weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or the technology needed to build them, will find their way to rogue states, terrorist groups or even criminal organizations. If such weapons should ever be used, 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 as important as any war in our history. It is a war fought with security assistance—financial and technical—to states of the former Soviet Union rather than with armed force. Its battles are against unemployment and lax security in the vast complex of former Soviet WMD facilities. Its fronts are an array of firms and institutes and Russia's 10 "nuclear cities," as well the international frontiers where smugglers try to move sensitive 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 Security Service in the Chelyabinsk region said that employees at one sensitive plant had tried to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material. A month earlier, 3,000 workers at Chelyabinsk-70, the nuclear city now called Snezhinsk and one of the country's two nuclear weapon design centers, held a protest over unpaid wages.<1> In 1996, the director of that facility committed suicide in despair over his inability to pay his personnel. The threat remains real, kept at bay in no small measure by the array of assistance programs, U.S. and other, that have responded to the changed security environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, more must be done.

In his January 1999 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton announced an Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative that will expand and strengthen U.S. security assistance programs by 60 percent over the next five years. (See Table 1.) In its fiscal year (FY) 2000 budget request, the administration requested over $1 billion for these programs. While the administration's request for extra funding is desperately needed and merits wholehearted support, it still does not match the level of the threat facing the United States.

As the United States moves to increase funding for new threat reduction programs—such as the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which seeks to help Russia to downsize its nuclear weapons complex without throwing scientists out on the street—it is important also to support and improve existing efforts. One of the earliest Department of Energy (DOE) programs, Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP), was begun in 1994 to address the threat to U.S. non-proliferation goals posed by former Soviet weapons scientists and technicians who, driven by their country's worsening economic straits, might offer their expertise and know-how to countries of proliferation concern. The IPP program, a cooperative arrangement between U.S. and former Soviet national laboratories and other institutions, has sought to channel the first-rate technological capacities of the latter countries into productive, non-military endeavors.

Despite its relative youth—IPP is only five years old—the program has been a frequent target of attacks. Its future has been imperiled at times by wildly inconsistent funding and by allegations of mismanagement. As the United States seeks to strengthen its security assistance programs, the IPP program has once again come under the spotlight. The scrutiny is welcome, but it is important to understand that this program has served U.S. interests and that its maintenance and improvement 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 on the IPP program that was again critical of program management.<2> Newspapers quoted a statement by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), who commissioned the GAO study, that DOE failure to implement reforms recommended by the GAO would "jeopardize continued support" for the program and also "cast doubt" on the wisdom of the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative.<3> (See box.)

These stories made it sound as though threat reduction efforts were once more in danger. In my view, however, what we are actually witnessing are the normal growing pains of a basically successful program. I believe that the IPP program and other non-proliferation assistance efforts both deserve 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 Soviet Union by assisting them to develop marketable ideas that can be produced in joint commercial ventures with Western companies. The GAO report notes that as of December 1998, the IPP program had funded over 400 projects—over 200 in its first year alone—at about 170 institutes and organizations in four countries, more than 80 percent of which are in Russia.<4> Thousands of Russian scientists have found at least part-time employment through IPP projects, and the result has been to lessen the temptation to sell their goods and expertise to rogue states. The GAO report discusses those results as follows:

Officials from three institutes told us that the IPP program had prevented their laboratory or institute from shutting down and reduced the likelihood that scientists would be forced to seek other employment. A representative from Sarov [the new name for Arzamas-16, Russia's equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory] told us that without the IPP program, the situation at the institute would be a disaster…. Some institute officials told us that the benefits of the IPP program went beyond financial support…[and included] how to do business with United States.<5>

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

Why, then, was the GAO critical of the IPP program? First, it found administrative lapses in DOE, such as not knowing how many scientists were engaged in particular projects, spending too much money in the United States and too little in the former Soviet Union, and allowing Russia to charge taxes on the assistance we provided. Secondly, it found many projects that had little or no chance of ever becoming commercially viable. Given that the IPP program is supposed to find Western investors for the projects it funds, the GAO's point was that the program was not achieving its long-term goals.

The GAO is right. But what the investigators found was actually the tail end of the success story. They found a program that, in five short years, successfully reached into 170 former Soviet institutes and helped employ thousands of scientists. The IPP program made those critical contacts and brought a message of hope that resonated throughout the community of Russian WMD experts. It told them that we understood their need both to survive economically and to maintain self-respect as skilled professionals.

The GAO's Critique

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

The lack of tight financial management was a particular concern in the GAO 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 in the former Soviet Union that the program assists. Many of the funds that reach Russia and elsewhere have been used to pay taxes, institute overhead costs, or procurement of equipment and travel, with often surprisingly small amounts ever getting to the scientists themselves. It turns out that DOE and its national laboratories managing particular projects were sometimes unaware of just how the funds they dispensed were actually being disbursed, although they knew that, on average, scientists in Russia received less than half the funds that were sent there.<7>

Now that the IPP program is maturing, more funds should reach recipients in the former Soviet Union. The U.S. national laboratories, in particular, ought to be able to reduce their administrative costs. At the same time, however, it is a fact of economic life that U.S. national laboratory scientists who oversee IPP projects command much higher salaries than do their Russian counterparts, given Russia's depressed economy. The tighter management that GAO rightly recommends will not be achieved, moreover, without devoting some of these high-cost personnel to that task. Perhaps it would be cost effective for the IPP program to establish a small Moscow office to keep closer track of projects with a minimum of travel costs. Another possibility to consider might be a closer relationship with the State Department-administered International Science and Technology Centers (ISTC), which are already located in Moscow and Kyiv.

The problem of Russian taxation is also a long-standing frustration. We want our non-proliferation assistance to provide maximum help to "at-risk" scientists. Host-country national and local authorities may see IPP as something of a "cash cow," however, especially if they are strapped for foreign exchange and have difficulty collecting taxes on their citizens' less-visible sources of income. The IPP program has operated at times under a temporary agreement that deferred Russian taxes, but the GAO found that some scientists were unaware of the agreement and that Russian authorities called it null and void at one point.<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 from requirements to pay Russian taxes on IPP assistance. If the 1992 agreement cannot gain Russian approval, perhaps a bilateral agreement can be reached for the IPP program alone. If that, too, is not possible, then DOE should give more serious consideration to routing its assistance through the ISTC program, which already has an intergovernmental agreement exempting its aid from national taxes.

The GAO was especially concerned over cases in which IPP program and project managers did not know—and in some cases did not wish even to ask—precisely who was benefiting from IPP assistance or what their backgrounds were.<9> In some projects, even the number of former Soviet personnel receiving assistance was unknown. As a result, it may well be that some projects involve aid recipients who are not really the "at-risk" experts whom the IPP program intends to assist, even though they are affiliated with institutes that may have been involved in the former Soviet WMD complex. DOE already has guidelines that require project 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, in fact, have a background related to weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles, then the executive branch should consider whether the project still merits funding under this program. If funds are going to persons who are still working on such weapons or missiles, then the executive branch should consider whether those persons should continue to receive funds under this program.

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

Likewise, it may make sense, in some cases, to provide part-time employment for persons who are also employed in work on nuclear weapons, on long-range missiles, or on chemical or biological defenses. Continued chemical or biological work of an offensive nature would violate treaties to which the former Soviet states are parties, and the IPP program must not subsidize treaty violations. Neither should IPP subsidize people who engage in activities warranting U.S. trade sanctions, such as the provision of technical assistance to Iran's long-range missile programs. Rather, U.S. assistance should require and enable recipients to turn away from such undesirable activities. The scientist who is good enough to still be employed by the Russian defense establishment may be precisely the person who should not be left on the market if his government is buying only half his time. That scientist may also be in a position to help the United States reach other weapons specialists who might be tempted to misuse their talents.

One especially important aspect of the president's Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative is a major effort to find alternative employment for Russia's biological weapons experts. The microbiologists and other scientists who built the Soviet Union's massive biological warfare establishment are highly expert. They are quite capable of doing research and development that would improve public health and agronomy in Russia and around the world. But they would be equally capable of assisting rogue states to wreak massive destruction if the United States and other countries do not enable them to survive in non-military pursuits. The administration's new initiative will not provide enough funds to fully employ Russia's biological weapons experts, but it will enable the Department of State, with help from the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, to make a significant start. That will help give us the time we so desperately need in which to improve our capability to combat those threats.

It also may be reasonable to permit institutes that employ persons who receive IPP funding to devote a reasonable percentage of those funds to overhead costs. That is a common practice in the United States as well, and our non-proliferation interests may be well served by enabling an institute to remain afloat. After all, just think what would happen if the nuclear weapons experts at Arzamas-16 or Chelyabinsk-70 all had to seek work elsewhere. The United States rightly supports the announced intent of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) to downsize by 50 percent its massive nuclear weapons complex. But we have a vital non-proliferation interest in helping MINATOM, through the new Nuclear Cities Initiative, to provide a "soft landing" for those who will lose their 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 are going and how they are being spent. It made sense, when the IPP program was new, to devote maximum attention to getting hundreds of projects off the ground. Now it makes sense for IPP to improve project administration. Hands-on management may also help more IPP funding recipients to run a tight ship from the business standpoint, and thereby to 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 useful defense related information is not unintentionally transferred."<10> The GAO warns "that nine of the [72] nuclear-related projects we reviewed could have dual-use implications." At the same time, however, the six projects actually cited in the GAO report suggest that no significant defense information was transferred.<11>

The first project cited by the GAO report involves a protective coating material being developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory, which could improve corrosion resistance on aircraft bodies, that a Russian institute is currently testing. The GAO states that the test samples provided by Los Alamos could be analyzed by Russian scientists and used to develop a similar material. Russia, however, already incorporates this technology on some of its aircraft. DOE officials have stated that this project was a basic materials science project. Any such project, whether it improves corrosion resistance or creates a more efficient fuel cell, poses a potential of both military and civilian applications. If former nuclear weapons scientists—be they American or Russian—are to put their training to use on high technology projects other than nuclear weapons, they are very likely to work on materials science. If we close off that avenue for fear of subsidizing projects from which the Russian (or American) military could benefit, then we may find ourselves back at square one with the problem of how to keep Russia's nuclear weapons experts from accepting more dangerous offers.

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

Additionally, the GAO cites two other IPP projects that focused on Russian electromagnetic absorbing materials technologies. DOE hoped that these technologies could improve air safety by reducing ground clutter around airports and also improve CAT scans and related medical analyses. The projects, which were recently cancelled, also had potential military applications, but the fact is they dealt with existing Russian technology that was being investigated for potential American sales applications.

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

Senator Helms' warning that the GAO recommendations must be implemented sent a stern message that DOE should pay attention, and I believe the department is paying attention. In responding to GAO's draft report, DOE concurred completely with 10 of the 11 recommendations. The GAO's 11th recommendation—that the Nuclear Cities Initiative not be expanded beyond the three cities where the program will begin (Sarov, formerly Arzamas-16; Snezhinsk, formerly Chelyabinsk-70; and Zheleznogorsk, formerly Kraznoyarsk-26)—was accepted with qualification. While DOE agrees on the need to move carefully, it "does not want to preclude the possibility of accomplishing significant reductions in nuclear weapons related activities in another closed nuclear city should the opportunity arise to assist in the shutdown of facilities there."<12>

That is a sensible approach, especially given the need to help all of Russia's nuclear cities find employment for downsized workforces. The three initial sites are the cities with which DOE has the most extensive ties, and therefore the cities at which the chances for success may be the greatest. But if significant layoffs begin at some of the other seven cities, the Nuclear Cities Initiative may have to expand, at least on a small scale, if only to keep hope alive and to encourage their nuclear weapons experts not to accept offers from rogue states for jobs or contracts. Given the vital support these programs provide to U.S. non-proliferation goals, I believe that even conservative senators will conclude that both the IPP program and the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative deserve our support.

The Future of Security Assistance

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

One question that hangs like a sword of Damocles over all our efforts is whether they even approach the scale that is needed to keep up to 100,000 former Soviet experts in weapons of mass destruction gainfully employed in socially useful professions. Last year, Congress mandated an executive branch study of whether current programs like IPP, with their emphasis upon fostering commercially viable ventures to provide long-term employment, can meet the short-term need to reach such a large, at-risk population. That study has not been completed, so the verdict is still out. My strong expectation, however, is that existing programs will not suffice. For this year, the task for Congress is to maintain those programs and to support the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative. For next year and for years to come, however, the need is to think outside the box of existing programs.

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


1. According to Matthew Bunn, workers complained of "constant undernourishment, insufficient medical service, inability to buy clothing and footwear for children or to pay for their education." His article, "Loose Nukes Fears: Anecdotes of the Current Crisis," Global Beat, December 5, 1998, also discusses several other disturbing incidents.

[Back to text]

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

[Back to text]

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

[Back to text]

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

[Back to text]

5.Ibid., p. 36.

[Back to text]

6.Ibid., pp. 3 and 60.

[Back to text]

7.Ibid., p. 31.

[Back to text]

8.Ibid., p. 33.

[Back to text]

9.Ibid., pp. 39-41.

[Back to text]

10.Ibid., p. 62.

[Back to text]

11.Ibid., pp. 44-46.

[Back to text]

12.Ibid., p. 104.

[Back to text]

Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE) is the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee