The World faces the threat of a major nuclear weapons disaster because Russia's impoverished atomic scientists are abandoning their posts in droves, a new report warned yesterday.
The safety of the country's nuclear arsenal, the pride of the military built up by the Soviet Union, is increasingly in doubt amid the collapse of the scientific élite.
The report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that Russia is failing "to train, recruit and maintain the type of experts it needs to ensure a safe, secure and reliable strategic nuclear deterrent". There is a growing risk that the Russian nuclear arsenal will suffer a devastating accident similar to the one at theChernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.
The scientists, in charge of producing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, once enjoyed a higher standard of living than other Russians. Now many of them earn only £40 a month and are forced to rely on second jobs for most of their income.
"I would go abroad with great pleasure, but sometimes I don't have enough money to buy cigarettes," a specialist told the social scientist Valentin Tikhonov, the report's author.
The survey of nuclear specialists living in 10 cities where nuclear weapons and missiles are made shows they are in despair at their prospects.
Mr Tikhonov gained access to 10 cities whose very existence was often a secret under the Soviet Union. They frequently did not appear on maps and had no names. Instead they were called after the nearest administrative centre, though it might be hundreds of miles away, and by its postal code, such as Chelyabinsk-45 or Krasnoyarsk-26.
The report says the reason for the fall in the quality of the 120,000 nuclear technicians working in the 10 cities is the collapse in their living standards. "About 60 per cent of surveyed specialists received monthly pay equivalent to less than $50," it says.
Mr Tikhonov writes: "Regular pay has ceased to be the main source of livelihood, giving way to money made by moonlighting." One unnamed scientist says: "Even people in Zambia do not live in this way."
But the fear of the early Nineties, that Russian nuclear specialists would take their expertise to other countries, has not been realised. Despite President George Bush's claim that a missile defence system is necessary to protect America against "rogue states", there is little demand for the services of Russian nuclear scientists abroad.
But the report suggests that many would go, if asked. "The main thing is that I should be paid," says one specialist. "After all, I will be working, not killing or robbing." Another scientist complained: "The most terrible thing is that no one is waiting for us anywhere, either abroad or in this godforsaken country."
Russia is losing capacity to replace existing nuclear weapons as well as to maintain those it has already. A missile specialist says: "Production of submarine missiles is dying with a corresponding dearth of designers and technology experts." Another complains that the government in Moscow has no policy for dealing with the nuclear and missile cities.
The report warns that "maintaining systems as complex as nuclear weapons and long-range missiles requires a skilled, experienced, and motivated cadre of experts".
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.