13 July 2017

The US-Russian teamwork that kept nuclear weapons safe

Siegfried S. HeckerPaul C. White

Paul C. White

Paul C. White is part of the editorial team of Doomed to...


“Nuclear weapons stink when taken apart,” a Russian nuclear weapons engineer told his audience. The year was 2000, and he spoke to a group of Russian and American experts who were attending a workshop in Sarov, the Russian Los Alamos, on how to safely dismantle nuclear weapons. The engineer was right: Nuclear weapons being disassembled smell like rotten eggs or a high-school chemistry lab gone bad. They can contain high explosives, organic substances, uranium, plutonium, and many other materials. Over the years, these materials interact, outgas, corrode, and are subject to irradiation, producing a foul smell. Hardly anyone outside the room would have had any reason to be aware of this, so the engineer’s words inspired knowing nods, and acted like a wink or a secret handshake: The Russian and American nuclear scientists in the room shared a common bond.

It was a strange phenomenon. Until just 10 years previously, the experts’ respective governments had been adversaries. But Russian and American nuclear scientists shared ties that no one else in the world could appreciate. Working far apart, they and their forebears had ushered into existence the world’s most destructive weapon, the atom bomb. They had worked to improve it, manage it, and make sure it was reliable. Now, they were trying to keep nuclear weapons safe from accidents and secure against theft and sabotage as the two superpowers downsized their arsenals. The scientists and engineers knew something that few others understood: That the most dangerous time in a typical nuclear weapon’s life cycle is not when it is being created, transported, or readied for launch. Rather, it is when it is being taken apart. Corrosion, changes in the sensitivity of chemical high explosives, outgassing of various compounds, radiation damage, and dimensional changes all challenge the skills of weapons engineers and scientists. The experts in the room might once have been one another’s opponents in some sense, but many on each side had intimate knowledge of weapons disassembly—who else could better understand what their counterparts were going through?

An urgent problem. The story of how the United States and Russia worked together to address weapons safety had begun years before, and represents a remarkable tale of once-mortal-adversaries cooperating on matters that took them right to the edges of their respective countries’ most sensitive nuclear secrets.

It started with the disastrous Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in April 1986. After briefly denying it had occurred, Moscow reached out to the international nuclear community for help mitigating the tragic consequences. Washington assisted quickly and effectively. Years later, Russian nuclear weapon scientists told their American counterparts (including the authors of this column) that the Chernobyl accident had happened because the Soviet Union was isolated. That is, Russian nuclear reactor designers, engineers, and operators had not had the opportunity to learn from their international peers. The weapon scientists assured us that the safety of nuclear bombs had always been much more rigorous. Yet the memory of the Chernobyl tragedy, and the enormous increase in the number of weapons being moved and disassembled, made Russian nuclear scientists keen to discuss concerns and safety practices with American counterparts.

The end of the Cold War all but eliminated immediate fears of a nuclear war. In an ironic twist of fate, though, it dramatically increased the risk of nuclear accidents and the potential for theft or diversion of nuclear weapons and materials. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had to transport unprecedented numbers of weapons from former Soviet republics to Russia for dismantlement. No one was as sharply aware of the risks as Russia’s nuclear weapons personnel.

In the wake of the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives launched by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in September and October of 1991, which promised transparency and dialogue on safe warhead transportation and storage, the Russians gave voice to their concerns. In Washington in November 1991, Viktor N. Mikhailov, later Russia’s minister of atomic energy, specifically requested help with weapon safety and security, as well as help storing the huge excess of fissile material that would result from the accelerated dismantlement of his country’s nuclear stockpile. The US Congress responded to these requests promptly by way of the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction legislation.

The scope and timing of the Nunn-Lugar efforts matched the urgency of Russian requests. To deal with security concerns related to the surge in warhead transportation, the United States cooperated to develop accident-resistant transportation containers. It provided armored Kevlar blankets to shield warheads and warhead containers from terrorist bullets, and smart rail cars that enabled secure monitoring of warhead shipments. Washington also helped meet the new storage requirements (resulting from increased dismantlement rates) by providing containers and technical and financial support for the construction of a state-of-the-art fissile material storage facility at the Mayak site in Russia.

These Nunn-Lugar-sponsored efforts, managed by the US Defense Department and supported by the US national nuclear labs, were a good beginning, but the Russian nuclear weapons experts wanted to do more to mitigate the dangers. The extraordinary number of nuclear weapons returning from the field and waiting to be disassembled included some past their certified lifetime. During one of the first meetings of Russian and American nuclear experts at Los Alamos in December 1992, Rady I. Ilkaev, the deputy scientific director of the Russian national nuclear lab VNIIEF, proposed direct, unclassified consultations on nuclear weapon safety.

The Russians not only sought bilateral technical cooperation, but also believed that Russian-American teamwork would demonstrate an unparalleled level of transparency about nuclear safety, which would help reassure their own citizens and a worried world that remembered the Chernobyl tragedy all too well.

Ilkaev and his Russian colleagues took advantage of the lab-to-lab scientific collaborations that blossomed during the early 1990s to explore much closer cooperation on safety—an approach that resonated strongly with their US lab counterparts. Yet no government agreements were in place to allow such cooperation. So two tracks were pursued in parallel: The governments prepared for formal negotiations, while simultaneously allowing the labs to exchange sensitive but unclassified nuclear-weapon safety and security concerns and practices. This sharing took the form of symposia called the Security Technology Exchanges.

Four such symposia were held between October 1993 and March 1994, two in each country, at which American and Russian scientists, engineers, and government officials compared experiences on a range of topics. Subjects included analyzing nuclear risk; mitigating risks posed by hazardous materials; understanding the response of engineered systems to abnormal environments; and communicating the content of technical documents.

One of the most important topics discussed in these symposia and later exchanges was human reliability. The economic and political crisis resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union severely strained one of the foundations of nuclear weapon safety: people. One of the authors of this piece (Paul C. White) recalls that at a July 1993 planning meeting in Ekaterinburg, his Russian counterpart asked, “What do you do when you can no longer count on people to do what they’re supposed to do—to obey the rules?” Although the Russians’ confidence in the loyalty and patriotism of their nuclear workers remained high, they expressed concern that the fraying of the decades-old system of authority could give rise to insider threats.

A mutual strategic interest. These symposia opened doors, established a foundation for building trust, and nurtured professional and personal friendships that endure to this day. They also helped pave the way for government negotiations on the Weapons Safety and Security Exchange agreement, or WSSX, which the US energy secretary and Russian minister of atomic energy signed in December 1994. It entered into force in June 1995.

In a March 1996 directive, US President Bill Clinton stated that cooperation on weapons safety and security was necessary to facilitate other US policy objectives, such as getting Russia to agree and comply with a true zero-yield Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Clinton authorized lab-to-lab collaboration between the three Russian and three US nuclear weapons labs, with the goal of sustaining the scientific competence of those responsible for the two countries’ respective nuclear stockpiles. His statement was remarkable for declaring that maintaining the expertise of Russian nuclear weapons scientists—America’s Cold War adversaries—was now a US strategic interest.

Although WSSX was an agreement between governments, the nuclear labs provided the driving energy and remained the centers of engagement for all related activities. Over the life of the agreement, which was renewed for five years in 2000, the two sides organized dozens of technical interactions, including symposia, joint studies, workshops, and exchanges of technical papers. The participants completed more than 100 collaborative projects on far-reaching and mutually beneficial topics. Among them were projects on accident response, responding to wildfires near nuclear facilities, and safety during warhead dismantlement. When Americans shared their experience of using a well-known industrial solvent—DMSO, or dimethyl sulfoxide—instead of mechanical methods to remove high explosives that had bonded to metal weapon parts, a Russian participant stood up and declared, “you have just given us a gift!” Such “gifts” were exchanged reciprocally to improve warhead disassembly on both sides.

The discussions on responding to wildfires would also prove mutually beneficial. It wasn’t just technical staff from Los Alamos and Sarov who got to participate in exchange visits. So, too, did the fire departments of the two cities. In May 2000, Los Alamos experienced a devastating fire that burned more than 400 residences and 30 percent of the lab’s real estate, and threatened facilities that housed high explosives, plutonium, and tritium. In 2010, Sarov had to battle a peat fire at the boundary of its nuclear complex. Los Alamos experienced another serious wildfire in 2011.

The WSSX exchanges allowed experts to learn new ways of looking at similar problems, unquestionably benefiting each country’s handling of the safety and security of its nuclear weaponry. In the book Doomed to Cooperateone Russian nuclear safety expert said the exchanges led his country to adopt new federal regulations on nuclear weapons safety and emergency response.

Sadly, the WSSX agreement was not extended in 2005. The end of this remarkable period of cooperation came at the hands of governments, not scientists. Washington imposed more legal and bureaucratic strictures on joint projects, and veered away from prioritizing nuclear safety to promote an agenda of arms control and transparency. Moscow became increasingly resistant to the presence of US technical personnel at its nuclear facilities. During the last three years, as relations between the US and Russian governments have seriously deteriorated, virtually all nuclear cooperation has ended.

Nuclear safety has become more challenging as the designers and engineers who developed the weapons in today’s arsenals retire, and the experience of nuclear testing fades into distant memory. The older generation has passed on as much experience as possible to the younger engineers—particularly the idea that ensuring nuclear safety is a never-ending job. The WSSX projects demonstrated that cooperation has great safety benefits, and can be accomplished without jeopardizing either side’s nuclear secrets. The scientists and engineers on both sides are prepared to resume cooperation. The bonds they forged endure, reflecting a unique like-mindedness, a sort of simpatico professional relationship (or sympatiya in Russian) that helped make scientific engagement such a success and the world a safer place.

Editor's note: This column is based on materials in Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers, published by the Los Alamos Historical Society's Bathtub Row Press in 2016.