Working with Russia

Posted: February 11, 2013 - 3:34pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

For decades official maps did not show Zheleznogorsk, Russia. Created in 1950 to produce weapons-grade plutonium, the Siberian city of about 90,000 existed in secrecy until the Cold War's close in 1991.

The end of that conflict between the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics meant the end of weapons production, causing thousands of highly skilled Russian nuclear workers to lose their livelihood. “As the Russians were reducing the number of personnel in the weapons business, the U.S. didn't want the workers to be desperate and wonder how they were going to feed their families,” said Y‑12 Program Manager Ken Williams.

Two Department of Energy programs, Nuclear Cities Initiatives and the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, helped Russia's nuclear workers move into free enterprise so nuclear materials and expertise wouldn't be sold to possible terrorists, said Williams, who managed the Y‑12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory programs for these initiatives from 1999 to 2004.

Both programs used Department of Energy funding to start new initiatives in Russia. “Most of the funding in these programs went to Russia, which provided a great dollar value,” said Williams.

Y‑12 and ORNL worked with the Russian government on about 15 Nuclear Cities Initiatives projects in Zheleznogorsk and nine other formerly secret Russian nuclear cities. A company marketing equipment and providing support services for automated identification technologies received funding, for example, as did businesses producing everything from sunflower oil to refurbished railcar parts. In 2004 Zheleznogorsk leaders visited Oak Ridge for an economic diversification workshop.

Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention paired U.S. companies with institutes in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan for long-term business partnerships. Y‑12 and ORNL worked with about 20 of those projects. The success rate of the new businesses was about 45 percent, far better than the usual 10 to 15 percent outcomes, Williams said. “It was good to tie in with Russia and get new perspectives,” he continued. “The benefit to the U.S. was that good technology came here.” Even more satisfying, however, was improving the lives of others. “We brought business to people in places that were open to the outside for the first time in their lives. When we came, people were very grateful.”

Although Y‑12 and ORNL's involvement in these programs ended around 2006, Y‑12's collaboration with Russia continues. One program trains Russians to secure their own nuclear and radiological materials. Other benefits are more personal. David Wall of the NNSA Production Office, for instance, was part of the U.S. Highly Enriched Uranium Transparency Program, which brought a 13-month-old girl to New York for surgery to repair a congenital heart defect. She's now a healthy 13-year-old and had an opportunity to celebrate her birthday with Wall and others on a recent transparency monitoring visit to Siberia.

Williams believes that such relationships are the biggest benefit of the various programs with Russia. “They got to see that we were not the enemies they were taught to believe,” he said. “We recognized that we're all human and that we all have the same motivations, the same interests. It really helped to strengthen our relationship with the Russians and the peace dividends that have come from that.”