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Russia: Nuclear Test Anniversary Prompts Debate On Future

  • Floriana Fossato

The 50th anniversary of Russia's first nuclear test is fueling debate about the future of the country's military and civilian nuclear efforts. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports from Moscow that money remains the overriding issue.

Moscow, 31 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian scientists, officials and ordinary citizens have just marked the 50th anniversary of the country's first test of a nuclear device.

On the eve of last Sunday's anniversary, President Boris Yeltsin released a statement praising scientists, engineers, workers and soldiers for their "selfless labours" to lay a powerful basis for Russia's nuclear force.

Official celebrations included discussions at Russia's Federal Nuclear Center at Sarov, or Arzamas-16. This is one of the places where, under complete secrecy and the oversight of former secret service chief Lavrentii Beria, the original work on the bomb was carried out.

Commemorations continued yesterday in Moscow at the headquarters of the Academy of Sciences and at the Theatre of the Red Army.

In the Kazakh region of Semipalatinsk, where the bombs were tested, scientists and anti-nuclear activists held a different type of commemoration. They remembered the more than one and a half million people whose health is believed to have suffered as a result of decades of nuclear testing in the region. It is not known how many died.

The focus on the past is fueling debate on the future of Russian nuclear science, one of the few remaining areas of research where Russians are arguably among world leaders. But while Russia's nuclear industry possesses great expertise, the country's troubled economy has left nuclear research starved for money.

One proposal for quickly raising cash was made last week by Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov. He told a meeting of ministers he wants to amend Article 50 of the Law on Environmental Protection to allow Russia to receive foreign nuclear waste for storage.

The law now prohibits storage of any imported nuclear waste.

Adamov says nuclear storage could bring the country as much as $20 billion in the next 20 years.

Members of the government have reportedly been asked to state their position on the issue before any amendments can be sent to the State Duma for approval.

Any proposal to bring nuclear waste into the country has environmentalists up in arms. Lydia Popova of the Moscow-based Center for Nuclear Ecology and Energy Policy told the English-language daily "Moscow Times" recently that any project to import waste would be "a bad dream."

A dissenting view is held by Thomas Cochran, the director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based environmental organization.

He told the daily that opposition from environmentalists is not surprising. But he calls the Atomic Ministry proposal "the best real prospect" Russia has to raise money for keeping its stockpile of nuclear weapons safe and to start cleaning up radioactive pollution.

Cochran says critics of the project "should propose an alternative amendment" that would limit the amount of fuel that could be imported and carefully regulate the use of revenues.

Money is also needed to keep Russia's contingent of nuclear scientists happily at work on peaceful projects. These former members of the scientific elite have seen their wages and privileges decline dramatically since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Keeping them well-paid -- and immune to financial offers from countries with nuclear ambitions such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- is a top priority of the West.

One answer may be a U.S. government project, the Nuclear Cities Initiative, aimed at bringing high-tech jobs to Russia's nuclear research cities. The program would fund research in the cities, in effect keeping them alive.

A U.S. congressional delegation this month visited one of the cities to promote the proposal. After holding talks in Snezhinsk P also known as Chelyabinsk 70 -- California representative Ellen Tauscher told reporters the proposal would aid U.S. security interests as well as helping Russia create a new economy.

The program has yet to be approved by Congress. A vote is expected next month.

The initiative is not without its critics.

Paul Josephson, a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a scholar on Russian scientific history, tells RFE/RL that by preserving the research cities, the initiative deprives fundamental science of needed support. He says there should be more money channeled into basic research at the university level.

Josephson says the U.S. is actually underwriting a post-Cold War military enterprise when it should be supporting non-military alternatives.