Faced with a dearth of opportunity, the aged nuclear scientist would not need much imagination, nor would he have to look far, to find a buyer interested in an exchange that would provide him with a hefty retirement package with which to live out his remaining years.
The collapse of communism resulted in economic stagnation, unpaid wages and layoffs amongst Soviet nuclear workers and security forces, precipitating a widespread fear of nuclear entrepreneurship – the sale of skills, know-how and materials to the highest bidder. Rogue states, terrorist groups, disaffected individuals. The fear was palpable in the climate of a post-Cold War world. The disarray of 1990s political and economic chaos made it difficult for the Russian government to secure its secretive closed nuclear cities and, more critically, the favour and tacit knowledge of these scientists made the fear that nuclear materials and technologies would fall into the wrong hands well-placed.
Russia’s ten nuclear cities contain the former Soviet Union’s principal nuclear weapons research, design and production facilities, and to the ordinary citizen, they weren’t really there. Nuclear cities were not officially recognised as existing until 1992 as they were amongst the Soviet unions many “closed cities” that were involved in certain sensitive activities. Located in remote regions around the country, closed cities were not labelled on any publicly-available map and were isolated from the world.
Surrounded by double fences, troops, and security checkpoints, access was tightly controlled by the KGB. While some closed cities were freely accessible to regular Soviet citizens (but never to foreigners), the nuclear cities were off limits to all but nuclear workers, their families, and support staff, who were not allowed to leave their isolation unless on official business. Mail was intercepted before delivery. External telephone calls were restricted. Even access to the nuclear facilities themselves required one to pass additional checkpoints and military cordons. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 42 of these closed cities have been acknowledged by the Russian government; but a further 15 or so are believed to not exist today.
Breaching a Soviet nuclear city was thus a difficult task for any Western intelligence service, and the residents that incurred the hardships necessary to confer this strategic advantage were handsomely compensated. Higher wages and improved access to better quality food, healthcare and consumer goods than other Soviet citizens guaranteed the loyalty of the men and women regarded as elite. Up to 150,000 people were employed in weapons-related work at the peak of nuclear productivity, and even as the cities began to shift away from weapons labour during the late 1980s, when strategic reductions and ageing plutonium reactors convinced the Soviet leadership to scale back production, the cities instead filled domestic orders for power-related activities and spent fuel management. This all changed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In line with the collapse of the Russian economy in the mid 1990s, weapons work was temporarily suspended in 1993 and 1995. Wage arrears, strikes and protests were a recurring theme at several nuclear labs and layoffs and reductions in spending (up to 50% in some cases) left the workers with diminished incomes and few alternatives. Restrictions on investment and access to closed cities made starting new businesses an impossibility. Despite improvements in salaries in the early 2000s, thousands of jobs were lost through the restructuring of the Russian nuclear industry, mandated by continual shifts in defence policy. The reduction from 150,000 to 67,000 nuclear workers between 1994 and 2004 involved mostly the younger scientists leaving voluntarily, to seek employment in the private sector. But the next round of cuts, ending this year, is anticipated to be much harder to accommodate.
Older workers leaving today risk being considered untenable by potential employers in the nuclear private sector, especially as its ranks bulge from previous cuts. Additionally, ageing workers are viewed as having fewer years left in them, regardless of the jobs they take, meaning that any company hiring them would see fewer returns on new training. Faced with a dearth of opportunity, the aged nuclear scientist would not need much imagination, nor would he have to look far, to find a buyer interested in an exchange that would provide him with a hefty retirement package with which to live out his remaining years. This then, is the major security concern and it is curious that it has rarely been discussed in international affairs.
The announcement last year that Russia is to leave the International Science and Technology Centre (ISTC), a multilateral research institute employing former Soviet scientists in basic and commercially relevant nuclear research, creates concerns for the future. Aimed at combating the general threat of nuclear entrepreneurship in Russia since the early stages of its return to more ordinary governance, the ISTC has really had only moderate success. With almost two decades of criticism behind it, largely focused on a lack of funding and a bias towards research that benefits the US over Russia, some have commented that the ISTC is being left behind by the Putin government in a move thought to reflect Russian nuclear ambitions and a desire to offset the threat of NATO’s missile shield. While these recent developments greatly undermine the progress that has been made through this key instrument of regional nuclear security, there is however some potential that Russia’s “nuclear pensioners” can rest easy knowing that their expertise might be in demand from state programmes for a little while longer.