Don't Play With Nuclear Fire.
The Open `Wounds' of the Closed Cities

Moscow PRAVDA, 2 Dec 95 pp 1-2
by Anatoliy Pokrovskiy

Have you ever seen the certificate of a Hero of Socialist Labor with, instead of a photograph of the holder, the officially authorized statement "valid without photograph"? A certificate like that was presented to Major General Pavel Mikhaylovich Zernov, first chief of KB-11 [Design Bureau 11], which was to become the basis of the "closed" city of Arzamas-16, also known as Arzamas-75, Shatki-1, and Moscow-Center 300.

The manufacturers of our nuclear weapons had many pseudonyms, but only one aim. It was not only individuals who were hidden from immodest eyes. Entire cities were shoved into "mail boxes." Present-day Russia has inherited 10 such cities from the former medium machine building sector: Arzamas-16, Krasnoyarsk-26, Penza-19, Chelyabinsk- 70, Sverdlovsk-44, Tomsk-7, Chelyabinsk-65, Zlatoust-36, Krasnoyarsk-45, and Sverdlovsk-45. Their 736,000 inhabitants are under the tutelage of the Russian Federation Ministry of Atomic Energy to this day.

This is not a purely Russian phenomenon. There were closed population centers in the United States, certainly Los Alamos itself, and others too. But it is only in Russia that they have been hit by the chill reformist winds which threaten to kill off the "green shoots" and the very life of these cities -- the country's best physicists and engineers. Things have gotten as far as pre- strike readiness and actual strikes. Russia's worried rulers hastened to announce the creation, say, in Arzamas-16 of a federal nuclear center with special budget support. The result?

This is what Yuriy Kuzmich Zavalishin, director of the "Avangard" plant in Arzamas-16, flagship of the nuclear industry, says:

"In the first nine months of this year the federal debt to the plant totaled 12.5 billion rubles [R]. Furthermore, the federal budget still had a debt of R5.3 billion left over from 1993. And there is no hope now that we will get this money, although leaders at every level have promised to help. It would be rash to rely on the federal budget alone."

Notice that last sentence. The same conclusion has been reached by workers at the Atomic Energy Ministry's nine other closed cities. And on the principle that saving drowning men is a matter for the drowning men themselves, they have set up the Association for Assistance to Citizens of Closed Administrative Territorial Formations of the Russian Federation Ministry of Atomic Energy.

Naturally, in these conditions it is impossible to survive behind closed doors. And they flung the doors wide open by organizing an exhibition of conversion projects of Atomic Energy Ministry nuclear centers, entitled "Festival of Russia's Closed Cities."

At its opening, Viktor Nikitovich Mikhaylov, Russian Federation minister of atomic energy, recalled that nuclear centers began to engage in conversion back in 1989 and that hundreds of billions of rubles were spent on it. Now approximately 20 percent of their output is for civilian purposes. But, the minister noted, this work was done without consideration for the market, and therefore the resources invested did not produce the expected profit. And he stressed that conversion goods should be ordered not by the state, but by actual consumers. And moreover, open trade is one of the most realistic routes to survival for the closed cities, since they suffer an acute shortage of money because of the constantly falling defense order.

Well, it was interesting to see what Russia's best scientific centers offer for sale. It was like an old village fair, with old Uncle Yakov offering goods to suit everyone: mini-breweries for the manufacture of all kinds of beer; transport and packaging kits for the transportation and long-term storage of spent [nuclear] fuel assemblies; machines for processing chicken giblets; construction materials; even clothes pegs.

Admittedly they are not all being snapped up. It is not easy to move straight into the turbulent market after living in a "mail box" for decades. You have to look around you, find out the prices, and, most important, restructure your own "budget-funded" mentality. Viktor Karnaukh, for instance, representative of an electrochemical plant from Zelenogorsk (formerly Krasnoyarsk-45), was optimistic.

There, by agreement with German firms, they have managed to set up production of high-quality audio and video tapes, as well as Russian television sets. At first they sold quite well, competing with Korean and even Japanese ones. A significant proportion of the population of Zelenogorsk received jobs and, correspondingly, wages as a result. But now it seems that this market is exhausted, and the production of new goods must be launched.

In general, things are difficult on the present-day market when it comes to the production and sale of high-tech products. This is what Yu.K. Zavalishin said: "Many of the designers are now so far removed from their main field that they are starting to offer beehives, incubators, and hulling mills, whereas we should be looking for work that would use our existing technologies and skills, where our professionals would be needed. We would like to find a conversion product appropriate to the profile of the enterprise."

So "Avangard" decided to manufacture a kidney machine. They should have ended up with a pretty good piece of equipment. I once visited Novaya Zemlya after an underground explosion of a nuclear device. In principle, what happens is this: The charge is placed in a deep silo, it is completely sealed so that fission products cannot escape to the surface, and all the processes that occur are recorded in fractions of a second by high-precision sensors which are instantaneously destroyed in that nuclear hell. Just imagine what subtle and accurate instruments are involved here! Of course they could give good service in a kidney machine too. However, it proved to be not so easy to penetrate the world market with it -- the market is already filled with the old suppliers' products. Competition is fierce, and it can happen that while "Avangard" is discussing the purchase of a kidney machine with a particular hospital, rival firms offer it their equipment free.

That is the self-regulating mechanism of the "free" market whose praises were sung by our home-grown monetarists, who have no experience of real production. But there is another side to the case. Of course clothes pegs, trailers, packaging, and construction materials are all good things, necessary to the existence of the inhabitants of the closed cities. All the same, the purpose for which they were created -- the country's defense capability -- has not disappeared forever. Despite a worldwide furor, France is currently carrying out a series of underground nuclear explosions. With the aim, it is reported, of developing mathematical modeling in future. This was followed by the news from the United States that it is to carry out six underground explosions of "subcritical" yield using nuclear materials. Our Foreign Ministry stated that the need for such tests is indeed dictated by considerations of ensuring the safekeeping of nuclear weapons.

But what about us? Should we be developing mathematical modeling, should we be worrying about the safekeeping of nuclear stockpiles? Specialists have been silent so far, but the diplomats say that, while consistently advocating a general and complete nuclear test ban and the reduction of nuclear arms, Russia is at the same time mindful of the realities of the existence of nuclear weapons. We are carrying out a number of necessary experiments with a view to ensuring their safekeeping and reliability.

Needless to say, these experiments are being conducted in closed cities and at closed test sites, as long as the skills required for such tests are not lost in the race for survival. Here it is not possible to do without state support, because market SOPs [standard operating procedures] cannot ensure the security of the country and its citizens. Whatever anyone says, the market is not always good for everything.