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U.S.: Officials Urge Employment Of Former Soviet Nuclear Scientists (Part 1)

The United States Department of Energy has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in programs aimed at securing jobs for skilled Russian military nuclear experts who are jobless or underemployed. Sponsoring an exhibition last week in Philadelphia titled "Partnerships for Prosperity and Security," the department aimed to establish better working relationships between venture capital firms in the United States and technologically innovative but cash-hungry enterprises in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. In the first of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev reports.

Philadelphia, U.S.; 11 November (RFE/RL) -- At a time of growing alarm about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear proliferation, U.S. officials are looking to enlist the ingenuity of former Soviet scientists.

The U.S. Department of Energy last week unveiled a new approach to its nonproliferation efforts at a two-day conference in Philadelphia -- highlighting products from the former Soviet Union in need of matching capital.

The conference featured 140 high-tech products from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan for use in a diverse range of industries, including nuclear reactors, coal, petroleum and gas, and hydrogen technology. Many of the technologies presented have never before been accessible to U.S. companies.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham spelled out the importance of the initiative, called "Partnerships for Prosperity and Security": "There is no question that many of these technologies can have wider applications in the global marketplace. On display are more than 100 high-technology products ready for commercialization, in areas ranging from nuclear fuel and reactor technology to fuel cells, aerospace and nanotechnology. There are even several technologies specifically designed to aid nonproliferation efforts and reduce terrorism threats. Among these are face-recognition software, portable diagnostics, and chemical and biological detectors."

This technical ingenuity is the product of entities like the Moscow-based Kurchatov Research Institute for Nuclear Energy, which during the Cold War employed more than 10,000 nuclear-energy experts and scientists.

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the planned Soviet economy, a significant number of these professionals could not find employment or were forced by necessity to work for meager salaries. The U.S. was intent from the beginning on preventing these scientists from accepting employment in rogue states considered a threat to international peace and security.

Aleksandr Rumyantsev, Russia's atomic energy minister, acknowledged at the Philadelphia conference that there are few opportunities for these scientists in Russia, especially those employed in the so-called "closed cities" inaccessible to foreigners. A Russian nuclear city is a closed territory where nuclear-weapons design and production takes place.

"It's true, it is definitely a problem for us to determine how we should transform these unemployed [or underemployed] scientists for a peaceful, [nonmilitary] working environment," Rumyantsev said. "Today's exhibit is an intermediate step, a kind of bridge-crossing between the military use of nuclear energy and its use for peaceful and practical purposes for all humankind."

Rumyantsev recalled the experience of the joint U.S.-Russia Nuclear Cities Initiative, which sought to provide employment to former military nuclear specialists.

The development of nuclear arms was accompanied by the discovery of many new technologies that at the time were highly secretive. But now, with the dismantling or reducing of nuclear-arms facilities in both the U.S. and Russia, there is a potential for many of those innovations to be applied in nonmilitary fields, such as medicine.

Last week's conference follows strides in recent months to enhance the energy dialogue between the U.S. and Russia. Last month, Abraham participated in the U.S.-Russia Commercial Energy Summit in St. Petersburg, which drew 600 business and government leaders in energy policy and commerce.

Abraham told the Philadelphia conference that such efforts are starting to yield results: "Promoting employment and economic development opportunities for these individuals is one of Minister Rumyantsev's and my highest priorities. And I am proud of the significant resources which our department has been devoting for creating peaceful commercial prospects for those individuals. So far we have witnessed a number of encouraging developments in these efforts to create jobs and partnerships for former weapon scientists."

Abraham and Rumyantsev announced at the conference the first joint venture project between a U.S. company and a Russian company founded in a closed nuclear city.

The groundbreaking project, which furthers the nonproliferation efforts of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, will employ former Russian nuclear scientists to manufacture medical components, equipment, and devices in the formally closed city of Snezhinsk.

The joint venture -- between Numotech, Inc., a Northridge, California medical-devices company, and Spektr-Conversion, LLC, a Russian entrepreneurial start-up -- will make life-changing medical products available to millions of people worldwide.

Projects include a product to prevent and heal pressure ulcers for those confined to wheelchairs, and a unique oxygen-bath system for healing wounds, pressure sores, burns, and incisions.

Nearly 100 former employees of the Russian Federation's All Russian Scientific and Research Institute for Technical Physics, who previously worked on the manufacturing and design of nuclear weapons, are now employed at Spektr-Conversion.

The Numotech-Spektr Conversion joint venture culminates three years of U.S. government support and is expected to create 433 permanent local jobs.

(In Part 2, our correspondent will explore in detail new ventures involving Russian, Kazakh, and Ukrainian partners.)