Ending The Week On A Positive Note

On too many days lately, it seems as though what I’m going to talk about in this post happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far away. It’s twenty years and more now, so Sigfried S. Hecker (Sig), who was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory at that time, thought that some of it should be written down.

And now it’s available to the general public. “Doomed To Cooperate,” 900 pages in two volumes, chapters written by participants in the exchanges between the weapons laboratories of the United States and what had been the Soviet Union.

I was involved in a slightly different way. I’ve heard an estimate that there were as many as 500 American scientists involved, which is not implausible. I won’t say much about the technical aspects of my involvement in this post. I’ve written about it here and here and may expand later. Nor will this be a review of Sig’s book. I haven’t read all of it, but I will say that his Overview chapter in Volume I is important and right on. I have heard that not everyone in government is happy with it. But that unhappiness was a continuing theme during the 1990s, and I may expand on that later, too.

Jim Conca has written a review in Forbes. I’ve been able to read it in feedly, but I can’t even link it because of Forbes’s defenses against the dreaded ad-blocker. But you can probably find it if you’re willing to indulge in unsafe internetting. Jim was at Los Alamos in the 1990s, and if I recall correctly, participated in some of our discussions.

In this post, I want to describe how it felt. I need something good right now, after the horrors of recent terror attacks and the looming danger of a Trump presidency, the craziness of Brexit and the Trump campaign. Maybe you do too.

Everything happened so quickly when the Soviet Union collapsed. You could see it building through the last part of the eighties, as Mikhail Gorbachev opened up discussion and even politics. And then, boom. The attempted coup in August 1991, the escape of the Baltic States, the desperate discussions through the fall to hold things together, and then acceptance of the reality in December.

The American weapons labs do more than design weapons. They have always addressed some components of policy. Over the years, that has been more or less explicit, but they’ve evaluated intelligence about other countries’ nuclear weapons activities for a long time. And that makes one think about policy, however blinkered Congress and the Department of Energy might want scientists to remain.

After the initial shock, the first thing most of us thought was OMG WHAT ABOUT THE NUKES? One of the two major nuclear weapons powers, with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and an active and widespread nuclear complex was coming apart. Lots of worried conversations about what might happen and what might be done to secure nuclear weapons and materials.

And then Sig and others were off to Sarov, the Soviet Union’s Los Alamos equivalent. Sarov. The secret city. Our concerns about the danger of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and our competition with them were always accompanied by curiosity. What are their laboratories like? How do they do that? (“That” including many things from weapons design to everyday life in secret cities.) How do they think about what they do? Their secrecy extended further than ours, and now they were opening Sarov to us. The world turned upside down.

The cover of the book shows Sig being greeted on the tarmac by Yuliy Khariton, the Soviet equivalent of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Wow.

The discussions continued in order to figure out what needed to be done. Security for nuclear materials was less than we thought. The Soviet theory was guards and guns. The guards and guns were leaving. We used paper and computer records. MPC&A (Material Protection, Control, and Accounting) became a common acronym.

Which cities and factories did the Soviet nuclear complex comprise? I recall a wall covered with brown paper, on which we sketched in the pieces we knew and connected them as best we could.

We began to see the areas of greatest concern and others for which we needed more information. Did the Soviets really do experiments at Semipalatinsk that kicked chunks of plutonium across the landscape? (Spoiler: yes) What was the function of some of the sites, like Sillamäe, whose names were all we knew?

It began to be a great adventure. Some of us met and began to work with Russian scientists. Some quietly began the tedious and oh,so essential work of setting up MPC&A procedures for the nuclear facilities. Yes, we could make this work.

And then it was my turn. Faxes back and forth. Immunizations, sometimes in both arms. Airline tickets and hotel reservations. Reading what I could on Estonia and Sillamäe, formulating questions putting my other work in order. Scary briefings about the lawless Former Soviet Union. Overnight in Denver, a baggage tag with TLL spitting out of the machine in the morning. Groggy jet-lagged too-late second thoughts in Frankfurt.

A dreary Soviet airport, although the building shape was more creative than I expected. The hotel elevator whistling up the floors. Kind people who wanted to fix the problems the Soviets had created. Old Town so beautiful, my special place. White birches in front of blue-black spruces, my mental picture of fairy tales. The sheer expanse of the Sillamäe tailings pond and the cold Baltic Sea just beyond.

A NATO conference in the fall, publish the proceedings, my Estonian counterpart secures funding from the European Union. Completed in 2009, calming the fears of the Estonian people and others who share the Baltic Sea. Plus a harbor and new industry to provide jobs.

It really does feel like you’re saving the world. I feel immensely lucky to have been able to do what I did, admiring of the persistence and hard work of my Estonian colleagues, and pleased it turned out so well.

Sig had the perspicacity to see what needed to be done and the willingness to do it. There’s a lot more to the story that you can find in his book. I thought we all need some good feelings today.


My photo at top: With colleagues on the roof of the Sillamäe process building, January 1998.


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