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The Issue

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union employed as many as 600,000 scientists, engineers, researchers, and technicians in ten secret, highly restricted "nuclear cities."[1] For over 50 years, these ten cities were isolated from the outside world as they developed and built nuclear weapons for the Soviet nuclear arsenal. With the end of the Cold War, Russia concluded that it could no longer financially support its vastly oversized nuclear weapons complex and decided to reduce staff size significantly by the year 2005.[2]

Today, formerly well-paid nuclear specialists are paid meager wages that are often delayed for several months, and the standard of living in the closed cities has dropped significantly. With thousands of individuals likely affected by the reductions, there is a serious risk that the scientists and engineers who had worked in these nuclear cities could be persuaded to work for terrorist groups or rogue states.[3]

The American and Russian nuclear complexes, while comparable in size, differ greatly in the manner in which they are maintained. The US has a program of maintaining a stockpile of warheads with a relatively long shelf life, while the Russian nuclear complex, because of manufacturing and technological problems that limit the lifetime of Russian warheads to around 10 to 15 years, relies on the continual production of new nuclear warheads.[4]

Although the US and Russia agreed to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear weapons under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, also known as the Moscow Treaty), some experts fear that Russia's warhead production capability gives it a significant "breakout potential"-the ability to begin rapidly producing new nuclear weapons. Consequently, they believe that the US must maintain a large stockpile of non-deployed warheads as an emergency backup. On the other hand, Russia is highly concerned about the large US non-deployed nuclear stockpile.[5]

Concerns on the part of both countries about the "breakout potential" of the other threaten to hinder further reductions of the nuclear threat inherited from the Cold War.[6] Additionally, the closing of Russian nuclear facilities in order to reduce or end Russian nuclear warhead production raises the problem of how to reintegrate into the mainstream the scientists and engineers who were once employed in weapons production.

Without solutions to these two interrelated issues-how to reduce and possibly end Russian warhead production and how to re-engage unemployed scientists and workers after warhead research and production facilities have been shuttered-have the potential to pose imminent threats to US national security and must be addressed expeditiously.

In 1998, an agreement between the US and Russia established the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI). This cooperative program, which was jointly managed by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Minatom- the former Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy now known as Rosatom, the Federal Atomic Energy Agency-worked to:

  • provide civilian, non-weapons related employment opportunities for former weapons scientists;
  • promote Russian economic development and diversification by sharing US expertise in areas such as diversification strategies, venture capital, market analysis, and marketing of products and services;
  • support and enhance non-weapons related expertise by developing entrepreneurial skills in the ex-WMD scientists; and
  • assist in creating the conditions necessary for economic development and conversion in the nuclear cities.[7]

The NCI negotiated a Closure Agreement with Minatom that led to the shutdown of the Avangard weapons assembly plant, converted 550,000 square feet of the plant into a civilian technopark, created two Open Computing Centers that employ 600 experts, helped with the shutdown of the plutonium reactor in Zheleznogorsk, trained over 2,000 city residents in marketing, management, proposal writing, workforce development, human resources, business English, intellectual property rights, and legal and regulatory standards, facilitated over 40 international exchanges, and developed over 20 commercial enterprises.[8] In total, the program redirected over 1,600 nuclear personnel capable of spreading dangerous expertise to rogue regimes.[9] However, due to a liability dispute between the US and Russian governments, new NCI projects were shutdown in 2003; existing projects were allowed to continue in Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk until 22 September 2006.[10] A similar liability dispute delayed the Plutonium Disposition program in Russia, but the two sides were able to agree on a new liability protocol. The Department of Energy hoped to use that protocol as the basis for a new Nuclear Cities Agreement that would allow the US to restart its work in the closed cities.[11] [See Issue Brief - Liability]

The Department of Energy also operates the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program. [See Issue Brief - IPP] The IPP identifies and develops non-military applications for defense technologies and creates long-term, non-weapons-related jobs for former Soviet weapons scientists and engineers in the commercial marketplace. This program has engaged over 16,000 scientists, engineers, and other staff at more than 180 institutes in Russia and the former Soviet states (FSU).[12] These projects have created over 2,300 new high-tech jobs in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.[13] While most IPP projects do not involve scientists in the nuclear cities, the program could play a larger role now that NCI has expired.

In the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for FY 2002 (Public Law 107-66), the NCI and IPP were combined into a single line item under the heading Russian Transitions Initiative (RTI). This was subsequently renamed the Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (GIPP) in the Department of Energy's fiscal year 2006 budget request to reflect the expansion of redirection programs outside the FSU.[14] However, in the Department of Energy's FY2008 request, there has been a reduction of funding for GIPP, with the reduction reflecting, according to DOE, the termination of the NCI portion of the program. [15]



  • The NCI program, though applicable to all ten nuclear cities, was restricted to the three pilot cities of Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk before the liability dispute caused the program to lose funding and expire.
  • Restricted access to, and the remote locations of, the closed cities were constant barriers to the success of the transition and redirection programs.[16]
  • Legislative support for the NCI and IPP programs has been weak, and restrictions placed on the programs have reduced their effectiveness.
  • Inadequate administration of the NCI and poor project selection led to much of the funding being spent in the United States.[17]
  • A shift in focus from Russia toward global threats, as demonstrated by the Russian Transition Initiatives being renamed the Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (GIPP), has reduced the funding available and attention to efforts like the NCI with an FSU-only mission.


Q & A

Q: Which cities are Russia's ten closed nuclear cities?
A: Until the end of the Cold War, Russia's closed nuclear cities were referred to not by their names, but by their postal codes.  The ten cities and their principal nuclear facilities are:

  • Sarov (Arzamas-16): Electro-Mechanical Plant "Avangard" and the All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF);
  • Snezhinsk (Chelyabinsk-70): the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics (VNIITF);
  • Ozersk (Chelyabinsk-65): Production Association "Mayak;"
  • Seversk (Tomsk-7): Siberian Chemical Combine (SKhK);
  • Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26): Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC);
  • Novouralsk (Sverdlovsk-44): Urals Electro-Chemical Combine (UEKhK);
  • Zelenogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-45): Electro-Chemical Plant (EKhZ);
  • Lesnoy (Sverdlovsk-45): Electrokhimpribor;
  • Trekhgorny (Zlatoust-36): Device-Building Plant (PSZ); and
  • Zarechny (Penza-19): PO START.

Q: How does the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) differ from the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP)?
A: IPP engages former Soviet weapon scientists at institutes across the states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) in applied research projects having high commercial potential. These scientists continue to work at institutes both inside and outside the Russian nuclear cities, and consist of former biological and chemical weapons researchers and missile development experts in addition to nuclear scientists. NCI, conversely, sought to reduce the size of the weapons complex through economic diversification. NCI converted machine shops and processing facilities from weapons work to civilian use, reduced the footprint of one major Russian nuclear complex, and re-directed high-performance US origin computers from weapons design work to civilian activities. This was very different from IPP's focus on technology commercialization within the institutes. Thanks to the NCI Government-to-Government Agreement, NCI enterprises paid no taxes or customs duties. IPP makes arrangements to send its payments through other engagement programs in order to avoid such additional costs.[18]

Q: What are other related US Government nonproliferation programs?
A: In addition to NCI and IPP, other so-called "brain drain" prevention or "expertise" programs include the Science and Technology Centers (STCs) [See Issue Brief - STCs], the US Civilian Research and Development Fund (CRDF) [See Issue Brief - CRDF], the Bio-Chem Redirect program, and the Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). The International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, a multilateral nonprofit organization with funding from the United States, Japan, the European Union, and other countries, provides research and development grants and training to Russian weapons scientists working in non-defense fields.[19] CRDF is a nonprofit organization that promotes scientific and technical collaboration between the United States and the states of the former Soviet Union.[20] Bio-Chem Redirect, organized by the State Department, links biological and chemical weapons scientists with US collaborators for sustainable research endeavors.[21] The BTRP, run by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, aims to "refocus research priorities and projects at FSU BW institutes on peaceful purposes" while also setting up a biological agent monitoring network throughout Eurasia.[22]

Q: In what ways does the US Government mitigate the risks of doing business in the closed cities?
A: The legal framework provided by the NCI Government-to-Government Agreement and the cooperation between Minatom and the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration created a measure of assurance and stability to US industries in the closed cities. NCI conducted export control reviews and ensured that due diligence was carried out on all proposals. The Russian Government offered tax incentives in the closed cities that made them attractive for local enterprises and their partners, but those incentives were removed in 2001.[23]

Q: Were there processes in place to ensure that projects approved by NCI had the potential to become commercially viable?
A: NCI had formal processes in place for review of the projects it funded, including review for commercial viability. This review process involved interagency participation as well as outside contractors with the background and expertise to do commercial reviews of Russian projects. In addition to assessment for commercial viability for commercial and technology projects, projects were reviewed to ensure that there was no duplication between programs, no export control issues, and no military dual-use concerns.[24]


Quick Facts

  • The Nuclear Cities Initiative helped shut down the Avangard weapons assembly plant.[25]
  • The Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) established two Open Computing Centers (OCC)-in Sarov and Snezhinsk-to provide alternative, non-defense employment for nuclear weapons scientists as programmers and software developers through work with Western and Russian commercial clients.
  • Russia's nuclear weapons scientists and technicians are sought after by rogue actors, and Russia is no longer able to provide adequate employment for all of its weapons scientists and technicians.


Recent Legislation

  • The Omnibus Nonproliferation and Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Act of 2005 (HR 665), which was never passed into law, found that thousands of weapons experts in the nuclear cities were suffering from poor wages and living conditions.
  • The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for FY 2006 (HR 2419, which became Public Law 109-103) appropriated $39.6 million for the Global Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention.


Applicable Treaties, Legislation, and Other International Agreements

  • Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) signed in September 22, 1998.[26]


Talking Points

  • At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union employed as many as 600,000 scientists, engineers, researchers, and technicians in ten secret, highly restricted "nuclear cities."[27] Current Employment at the large nuclear facilities in the Russian Federation's ten closed nuclear cities is estimated to be in the range of 120,000 to 130,000 people.[28]
  • The lack of opportunity for Russian nuclear scientists and workers to obtain sustainable civilian jobs creates the risk that the knowledge and expertise of these scientists and workers will be exploited and exported to the highest bidder.
  • Poor wages and living conditions in Russian nuclear cities have already inspired protests and strikes among the employees working in them. Additionally, insiders have been caught attempting to smuggle nuclear materials out of these facilities, presumably to sell on the lucrative black market.[29]
  • By providing financial and technological assistance to aid in the closing of Russian nuclear cities, US national security is strengthened by reducing the size of the Russian nuclear complex and securing nuclear expertise and materials against proliferation.
  • The NCI has been prevented from seeing its full potential due to liability disputes and lack of stable and sustainable United States support for the program.
  • A new Nuclear Cities Agreement would allow the US to maintain its nonproliferation success in the Russian nuclear cities. Allowing the original agreement to expire places many of those gains at risk.



  • A National Security Council designee should spearhead an interagency process to reassess the global role of CNP efforts in today's context. Such a close examination of the entire suite of programs across all relevant government agencies should strive to fill gaps within the existing efforts, such as the gap left after the expiration of the Nuclear Cities Initiative.
    [See Book Recommendation #1]
  • Work more closely with Russia to develop support for a new NCI. US and Russian officials should iron out issues of access, liability, and sustainability prior to the commencement of new NCI activities.
    [See Book Recommendation #6]
  • Create a bicameral congressional task force whose objective is to regularly provide briefings from a broad array of the actors involved in actual implementation of CNP initiatives. Members of Congress often fail to grasp the importance of scientist redirect programs and defense conversion efforts like NCI. If Congress fails to act, DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) officials should spearhead their own ongoing series to inform congressional staff and Members in an off-the-record, informal forum.
    [See Book Recommendations #7 and #19]
  • The US Government, in close collaboration with industry, should spearhead a revived version of NCI to redirect scientists to achieve specific technological advances to solve the US's energy, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, intelligence, and other needs. This way, the US can better achieve its existing nonproliferation goals with respect to brain drain while exploring potential technological solutions to existing security concerns at lower cost.
    [See Book Recommendations #8 and #17]
  • The Department of Energy should coordinate with the Department of State to determine each agency's responsibilities, and to ensure that no redirect overlap occurs.
    [See Book Recommendation #16]
  • Any new NCI should eliminate the three city restriction, allowing work to occur in all ten nuclear cities.
    [See Book Recommendation #21]

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[1] Mariya Kalugina, "Amerikantsy platyat za konversiyu 'atomnykh gorodov' Rossii," Izvestiya online edition, 24 September 1998, accessed at: , cited in Elena Sokova, "Russia: The Nuclear Cities Initiative," 19 April 2002, accessed at: .
[2] US Department of Energy, Office of Nonproliferation and National Security, "Nuclear Cities Initiative: Program Strategy," August 1999, accessed at: .
[3] Elena Sokova, "Russia: The Nuclear Cities Initiative," 19 April 2002, accessed at:
[4] According to General Evgeni Maslin, former head of the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, "[A]pproximately after ten years in storage, it [high explosives necessary for a nuclear weapon to function] starts to crack and change its chemical and physical properties..." O. Falichev, "Who Keeps the Keys from the Nuclear Arsenal," Krasnaya Zvezda, 26 December 1993. The problems of corrosion and swelling of nuclear components were mentioned in Stenographic Records of the Parliamentary Hearings, "Safety and Security Problems at Radiation-Hazardous Facilities," 25 November 1996, Moscow (see Yaderny Control, October-November 1997, pp. 7-11), cited in Oleg Bukharin, "A Breakdown of Breakout: US and Russian Warhead Production Capabilities," October 2002, accessed at: .
[5] Oleg Bukharin, "A Breakdown of Breakout: US and Russian Warhead Production Capabilities," October 2002, accessed at: .
[6] Ibid.
[7] US Department of Energy and Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, "Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Nuclear Cities Initiative," 22 September 1998, accessed at:
[8] National Nuclear Security Administration, "Nuclear Cities Initiative," accessed at: .
[9] Nuclear Threat Initiative, "U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cities Plan to Dissolve Friday," Global Security Newswire 20 September 2006, accessed at: .
[10] Ibid.
[11] Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, Securing the Bomb 2006 (Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, DC: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, and Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2006):15.
[12] National Nuclear Security Administration, "Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention," accessed at: .
[13] Ibid.
[14] Department of Energy Office of the Chief Financial Officer, "Department of Energy FY 2006 Congressional Budget Request," accessed at: .
[15] Department of Energy Office of the Chief Financial Officer, "Department of Energy FY 2008 Congressional Budget Request," accessed at: .
[16] Elena Sokova, "Russia: The Nuclear Cities Initiative," op cit., note 3.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] International Science and Technology Center, "What is the ISTC? Nonproliferation through Science Cooperation," accessed at: .
[20] US Civilian Research and Development Foundation, "About CRDF," accessed at: .
[21] State Department Bureau of Nonproliferation, "The US Bio-Chem Redirect Program," 17 August 2004, accessed at: .
[22] Defense Threat Reduction Agency, "Biological Weapons Proliferation Prevention - Former Soviet Union (BWPP-FSU)," accessed at: .
[23] Elena Sokova, "Russia: The Nuclear Cities Initiative," op cit., note 3.
[24] Ibid.
[25] NNSA, "Nuclear Cities Initiative," op. cit., note 8.
[26] US Department of Energy and Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, "Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Nuclear Cities Initiative," op. cit., note 7.
[27] Mariya Kalugina, "Amerikantsy platyat za konversiyu. . ." op. cit., note 1.
[28] US Congress, "Ensuring Implementation of the 9/11 Commission Report Act (S.328)," Title III, Subtitle C, Section 322 (submitted in 2007), accessed at: .
[29] Ibid.

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Last Updated on June 1, 2007