Unemployment can be rough, especially for a Russian nuclear scientist of the Cold War era. When that era came to an end, so did the careers of thousands of highly specialized workers. But while both Russians and Americans lost jobs, American nuclear scientists had advantages: favorable laws, good communications and infrastructure, easy access to the job market and a relatively strong economy, to name a few.
The American scientists also were not confined to the "closed cities" spread across Russia from Moscow through Siberia and overseen by MINATOM, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. Since their construction in the 1940s, these weapons-design and production sites have been surrounded by guards and gates and closed to the outside world, with special permission required to enter or leave them.
The closed Soviet cities were self-sustaining communities, dedicated to the production and design of modern weapons. The cities protected the privilege and economic well-being of the Soviet scientists, engineers, technicians and their families who lived and worked behind their walls. These cities boasted an estimated total population of 800,000, many of whom lost their jobs in the end.
An unemployed nuclear scientist is a potentially dangerous person whose skills and know-how might be bought by the highest bidder, including such rogue nations as Iran, North Korea and Iraq. The Nuclear Cities Initiative, a joint project between the U.S. Department of Energy and MINATOM, was created to deal with unemployment issues involving Russian nuclear scientists, with the idea being to make sure that Russia finds a place for these workers--lest they sell their skills to rogue states.
The American project manager for the Nuclear Cities Initiative is David Zigelman, with whom INSIGHT talked recently.
Insight: Why are unemployed Russian weapons scientists our business?
David Zigelman: These scientists were making $1,000 to $12,000 a year. It was not a lot by our standards, but they were taken care of by their government. They lived quite well, but that no longer is the case.
The Russian government doesn't have the money to continue paying these people, and neither Russia nor the U.S. wants them working for, say, North Korea, Iran or Iraq. So our partnership began about three to five years ago, after peace broke out.
This work is important because a country like the People's Republic of China might offer one of these scientists $500,000 to help develop a weapon. That's a strong incentive, especially to desperate men in an unemployment line. So we must find commercial jobs for them at $50,000 to $100,000 a year or risk their defection.
These people need our assistance because moving out of those cities means they suddenly will have to pay rent for the first time in an economy that no longer needs their services.
Insight: Where do you come into this scheme of things?
DZ: I was working at Savannah River for Westinghouse where we made nuclear materials. In 1998 the Department of Energy [DOE] recruited me for the Nuclear Cities Initiative. I had experience in downsizing, economic diversification and business development.
But I never would have believed it if I had been told I would be working with Russians on a project like this. It's an opportunity few have, especially those who don't speak Russian.
I help these scientists formulate new projects. Often they believe that, because they have the technology and capability to make a product, that product will be valued in the marketplace. They take an engineering approach, a supply-side approach, but the market is driven by market forces. One cannot push a product down a buyer's throat.
I also help get funding from the DOE for the projects we develop together and for the commercial partners with whom we work. I help develop the partners, contracts, publicity and follow the basic execution of each project. …