Doomed To Cooperate — Russia, The U.S. And Nuclear Weapons After The End Of The Soviet Union – Forbes
In the 20th century almost everyone worried about the destruction of the world as we knew it from a full-scale nuclear war between the United Stated and Russia, or even a nuclear attack by a rogue nation who obtained a nuke by clandestine means. It was not far-fetched and was averted only by the steadfast and unwavering commitment of scientists and politicians who understood that diplomacy and science together would achieve what saber-rattling never could.
So writes our preeminent nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, in his new 2-volume set, Doomed to Cooperate, that includes contributions from over 100 Russian and American scientists and diplomats. The book tells the story of the American nuclear scientists, and their Russian counterparts, who worked over 25 years to secure nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in the waning days of the old Soviet Union and the tumultuous aftermath of its dissolution in 1991.
The Threshold Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons with yields over 150 kilotons, had been signed in 1974 but it was never ratified because it was difficult to envision just how joint verification could be achieved. While each side was eager to share the other’s scientific knowledge, it was critical to develop the personal communication and respect among the various players that would grow the trust needed for true verification.
Following the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in 1986, the idea of such collaboration took root in the minds of scientists and military leaders on both sides, becoming known as the lab-to-lab collaboration, i.e., the collaboration between the American weapons laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories and the Russian nuclear weapons institutes, VNIIEF in Sarov, VNIITF in Snezhinsk and VNIIA in Moscow.
In the few years following Reykjavik, American nuclear scientists were invited to the Soviet secret cities. Cities so secret, says Hecker, that they didn’t even appear on Soviet maps.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The resulting economic crisis in the new Russian
Federation was worse than the Great Depression. Fears emerged that some nuclear materials were no longer secure. Would loose nukes fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states and plunge the world into a nuclear nightmare? The nature of the nuclear threat changed from one of “mutual annihilation” to “what would happen if nuclear weapons were lost, stolen or somehow slipped out of control of the Russian government.”
Most importantly, Hecker and the rest of the Americans were concerned about the million Russian nuclear scientists and workers, many of whom were now out of work or underemployed and whose new poverty constituted a real security risk.
So the lab-to-lab collaboration took on a more urgent quality.
In early 1992, Russian Laboratory Directors Vladimir Belugin of VNIIEF and Vladimir Nechai of VNIITF came to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, and two weeks later LANL Director Siegfried Hecker and LLNL Director John Nuckolls went to VNIIEF and VNIITF. Thus began not only the scientific endeavors but also the intensity, emotion, friendships, and humor that accompanied them, and that seem to have been equally important for their ultimate success.
The Russians were proud of their scientific accomplishments and demonstrated them to the Americans scientists as they toured the Russian nuclear complex. While the United States had about 25,000 nuclear weapons at that time, there were almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in Russia and the old Soviet states in Eastern Europe. Russia had about 3 million pounds of plutonium and highly enriched uranium ready to be made into nuclear weapons. Compared to the 13 pounds of plutonium that made up the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, this was a lot of nuclear material that needed to be secured.
Hecker pointed out that the Russian scientists realized the awful destruction that even a single nuclear bomb could wreak and were motivated to act responsibly. In the words of one of the Russian leaders,, “Therefore, you know, we were doomed to work together, to cooperate.”
The Bush 41 administration put in place nuclear initiatives to calm the nervous Russian government, providing funding, taking nuclear weapons off of American Navy surface ships and taking nuclear weapons off of alert so that the Russians could do the same. The U.S. Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation, which helped fund some of these loose nuke containment efforts.
And while those were positive results, Hecker noted that it was ultimately the cooperation among scientists, the lab-to-lab-cooperation, that allowed the two nuclear adversaries to make “the world a safer place.”
The results have been impressive. No nuclear event has occurred since the dissolution of the Soviet nuclear complex despite persistent fears, and the combined U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals now number less than 15,000.
For Hecker, this is not just an American story, it is a selfless reconciliation with a longtime enemy for the greater good, a “relationship not corrupted by ideological or nationalistic differences, but one reflective of mutual interests of the highest order.”
As Hecker puts it, “We discovered that we not only shared common scientific bonds, but also the enormous sense of responsibility we had for nuclear weapons. The scientists and engineers of the weapons laboratories on both sides considered ourselves the stewards of the nuclear weapons. We conceived them, we designed them, we helped build them, we gave custody to the military, and finally we took them back for disassembly. We had cradle-to-grave responsibility for the weapons and could not rest until they were dismantled.”
According to Hecker, “The primary reason why we didn’t have a nuclear catastrophe was the Russian nuclear workers and the Russian nuclear officials. Their dedication, their professionalism, their patriotism for their country was so strong that it carried them through these times in the 1990s when they often didn’t get paid for six months at a time.”
The sentiment from laboratories in both the United States and Russia is that this lab-to-lab cooperation was not only productive in its time but should continue into the future. However, many of the cooperative programs between our two countries have ended, including the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC), the nuclear warhead safety program (WSSX) and the safety and security of fissile materials program (MPC&A). The challenge now is how to renew the support for such endeavors in Moscow and in Washington when relations between our countries are at a particularly low point.
We would be wise to learn from this recent past, especially when some of our politicians call for tearing up the Iran Nuclear Deal, or generally getting tougher with the world, thinking our nuclear weapons make us invincible.
What makes us invincible is knowledge, understanding and caring about the future.
Dr. James Conca is a geochemist, an energy expert, an authority on dirty bombs, a planetary geologist and professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at Amazon.com