Why the Soviet nuclear arsenal stayed secure as the nation collapsed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the worry in the West was what would happen to that country’s thousands of nuclear weapons. Would “loose” nukes fall into the hands of terrorists, rogue states, criminals – and plunge the world into a nuclear nightmare? Fortunately, scientists and technical experts in both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union rolled up their sleeves to manage and contain the nuclear problem in the dissolving Communist country.
One of the leaders in this relationship was Stanford engineering professor Siegfried Hecker, who served as a director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory before coming to Stanford as a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is a world-renowned expert in plutonium science, global threat reduction and nuclear security.
Hecker cited one 1992 meeting with Russian scientists in Moscow who were clearly concerned about the risks. In his new book, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers, Hecker quoted one Russian expert as saying, “We now need to be concerned about terrorism.”
Earning both scientific and political trust was a key, said Hecker. The Russians were proud of their scientific accomplishments and highly competent in the nuclear business – and they sought to show this to the Americans scientists, who became very confident in their Russian counterparts’ technical capabilities as they learned more about their nuclear complex and toured the labs.
Economic collapse, political turmoil
But the nuclear experts faced an immense problem. The Soviets had about 39,000 nuclear weapons in their country and in Eastern Europe and about 1.5 million kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (the fuel for nuclear bombs), Hecker said. Consider that the bomb that the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 was only six kilograms of plutonium, he added. Meanwhile, the U.S. had about 25,000 nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.
Hecker and the rest of the Americans were deeply concerned about the one million-plus Russians who worked in nuclear facilities. Many faced severe financial pressure in an imploding society and thus constituted a huge potential security risk. “The challenge that Russia faced with its economy collapsing was enormous,” he said in an interview.
The Russian scientists, Hecker said, were motivated to act responsibly because they realized the awful destruction that a single nuclear bomb could wreak. Hecker noted that one Russian scientist told him, “We arrived in the nuclear century all in one boat, and a movement by anyone will affect everyone.” Hecker noted, “Therefore, you know, we were doomed to work together to cooperate.”
All of this depended on the two governments involved easing nuclear tensions while allowing the scientists to collaborate. In short order, the scientists developed mutual respect and trust to address the loose nukes scenario.
The George H.W. Bush administration launched nuclear initiatives to put the Russian government at ease. For example, it took the nuclear weapons off U.S. Navy surface ships and some of its nuclear weapons off alert to allow the Russians to do the same. The U.S. Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation, which helped fund some of the loose nuke containment efforts.
While those were positive measures, Hecker said, it was ultimately the cooperation among scientists, what they called lab-to-lab-cooperation, that allowed the two former superpower enemies to “get past the sensitivity barriers” and make “the world a safer place.”
Since the end of the Cold War, no significant nuclear event has occurred as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its nuclear complex, Hecker noted.
Lesson: cooperation counts
One lesson from it all, Hecker said, is that government policymakers need to understand that scientists and engineers can work together and make progress toward solving difficult, dangerous problems.
“We don’t want to lose the next generation from understanding what can actually be done by working together,” he said. “So, we want to demonstrate to them, Look, this is what was done when the scientists were interested and enthusiastic and when the government gave us enough room to be able to do that.”
Hecker said this scientific cooperation extended to several thousand scientists and engineers at the Russian sites and at U.S. nuclear labs – primarily the three defense labs: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia national laboratories. Many technical exchanges and visits between scientists in Russia and the United States took place.
He recalled visiting some of the nuclear sites in Russian cities shrouded by mystery. “These cities were so secret, they didn’t even appear on Soviet maps.”
Change of threat
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the nature of the nuclear threat changed, Hecker said. The threat before was one of mutual annihilation, but now the threat changed to what would happen if nuclear assets were lost, stolen or somehow evaded the control of the government.
“From an American perspective we referred to these as the ‘four loose nuclear dangers,’” he said.
This included securing the loose nukes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; preventing nuclear materials or bomb fuel from getting into the wrong hands; the human element involving the people who worked in the Soviet nuclear complex; and finally, the “loose exports” problem of someone trying to sell nuclear materials or technical components to overseas groups like terrorists or rogue nations.
For Hecker, this is not just an American story. It is about a selfless reconciliation with a longtime enemy for the greater global good, a relationship not corrupted by ideological or nationalistic differences, but one reflective of mutual interests of the highest order.
“The primary reason,” he said, “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 nuclear complex did its job through the most trying times. And it was a time when the U.S. government took crucial conciliatory measures with the new Russian Federation and gave us scientists the support to help make the world a safer place.”