Interviews

NIKOLAI BONDAREV is the Director of Security at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Russia's oldest atomic research institute. Located within Moscow's Ring Road, less than ten miles from the Kremlin, Kurchatov's urban environment poses unique safety considerations, including robust physical protection for the tons of fissile materials located on the site. However, until recently, there was not even a fence around the main central storage building of the complex. Mr. Bondarev has been working closely with American specialists to devise improved security measures for the institute.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: When we first met, you told me that one of your biggest problems as the director of security is that the problem of terrorism is becoming more and more dangerous.

BONDAREV: Because the conditions in our country have changed, today the problem of terrorism is quite real and it's indicative of everything that is going on in our country. The growth of criminal influences, the war in Chechnya, inter-ethnic disputes in other regions. We are looking at what's going on in the army, the security guards, and we believe that this problem is growing.

Q: What about the economic conditions in the country? I know they don't effect terrorism, but do they affect the problems security here at Kurchatov?

BONDAREV: That's a very good question. If you consider how it was when the Institute was first set up, people who already had recognition from the government came here, they got special attention along the way, and today, the scientists and technicians who work at the institute find themselves on the lowest steps of the ladder. The median salary for an employee of the Kurchatov institute is less than half the salary in Moscow. This is one factor that accounts for the braindrain of qualified people, there is no influx of young people; today we depend on the security, work ethic, and sense of responsibilities of the older people who were hired, the core of the whole staff that took shape before "Perestroika".

Q: Are you worried about the people who used to work inside --the three or four thousand people who used to work here who no longer have jobs here?

BONDAREV: If we are talking about two categories of violators, insiders and outsiders. We've just analyzed our new situation, and the results are this: At the inception of this institute, the problems of criminals within did not exist. First, there was total secrecy. Everything was classified. An attempt, not even to steal, but just to find out information, could have been seen as an intrusion on the authority of the government, and its secrets. This was what protected the institute, and besides, there was a very stringent selection process. You had to get two recommendations from people who already worked here, plus, you were checked out by the KGB. All those factors, and the patriotism workers felt so strongly - the problem of an inside criminal didn't exist. There was solidarity, and this worked for us. Really, in 50 years, there were no serious infractions.

Today, if you look at the system, almost everything has been disrupted, and today, because of the low salaries, and the influx of young people who don't really have security clearance at all, and whose stable character is not guaranteed, today, before us is the problem of the insider - the criminal. That's what is happening in the rest of the country with the leakage of radioactive materials, we cannot discount the possibility of that happening here. We see two dangers: smuggling and terrorism. When they can threaten to blow up a reactor in Moscow, or some other situation. That's why today, we find ourselves in a new scenario with issues we need to examine and then take the necessary steps. In this building, with our American colleagues, we realized what is evident everywhere in the world. The staff that handles fissile materials must be monitored automatically, with the help of technology. So for us, this new problem exists, but at least we can now see how to solve it.

Q: When we were in the car driving over here just a few minutes ago, you told me something very interesting. That the relationship with the Americans have been very tentative because no one was sure how the bureaucracy would react. And now it's beginning to change. It's very interesting.

BONDAREV: Both the US and Russia are moving away from a state of confrontation to a state of joint responsibility and concern for what is going on in the world. We now understand that it is impossible to be isolationist. We find ourselves in the same spaceship, so to speak. Our mastery and understanding of the technology is such that we can harm the whole world from one small site; and that would be bad for everyone. That's why today, we must find a common ground against the animosity which we had not so long ago, so that we can together solve the globe's problems.

If a fissile materials leak occurs in America, then that would be bad for Russia too: if this happens in Russia, it would be bad for the US. But to enter into territory which was once closed takes the courage of a true citizen. We see that today, not everyone is capable of taking such a step. Often, you encounter bureaucrats who feel it is easier to distrust and oppose this sort of cooperation because there's the fear that if the world breaks up into opposing sides, once again, should this happen, then those who supported cooperation will be seen as almost an "enemy of the people" or in any case collaborators. These are the ideas we still run into today.

Q: What you were saying was that the recent international conference on nuclear security held in Moscow in the spring of this year marked a very important moment. Because even then, there were people who were worried that they would be blamed at some point.

BONDAREV: These people, who try to prove their usefulness by worrying about what might happen, they do exist. Now and also before the conference, my American colleague told me that they too have such people, who pride themselves on their resistance to anything new. What I liked about the conference is that it gathered specialists, very knowledgeable, not those nay-sayers. The papers were substantive, the problems were brought up in the proper light. There was much new information, even in the reports of my Russian colleagues, and it's too bad that such conferences haven't happened here, unless it involves international participation. It made us more open in front of each other, with Obninsk, with Chelyabinsk.

It is surprising that Minatom did not put on such a conference earlier, even just for themselves. This illustrates their hesitance, the subject of security was always classified. What we should have done was try to understand what is really necessary to hide, and what must be discussed in the open.. When this is not done, there is resistance that even an excursion to Obninsk was not allowed - the same facility that was set up jointly with the Americans. That's just an example. So at the conference it was specialists that gathered - those who took upon themselves the responsibility to participate. This is very important, and such people are urgently needed today. It is encouraging that we can approach a topic of such seriousness as the non-proliferation of fissile materials as a unified team of professionals.

Q: Speaking about Minatom. You've been very honest that the there are potential problems here at Kurchatov, and you are working on them. The official position at Minatom is that there is no problem in the country where security of fissile materials is concerned. I don't understand why they say that, because no one really believes them.

BONDAREV: Let me say this: the worsening situation in which the atomic industry finds itself is such that Minatom has its own conception of what the government should do, what the security police should do. It does not acknowledge the worsening conditions. Plus, the security systems which were in place in nuclear installations in the past, they are obsolete. There needs to be more active participation, more bell ringing, to find the cooperation of the forces in Russia which can put this problem before the government to force decisions, not wait around for something to happen. That's what I'm talking about.

Minatom now has been entrusted to work out the rules of the physical guarding of the nuclear installations, and the fissile materials. They've been working on these rules for over two years now.. Now they are putting on the finishing touches. Things are being done, but not fast enough and not with good enough results.

Q: But you think that there is a big problem in the country which needs to be solved, very seriously and very quickly?

BONDAREV: I think we are already running late in solving the problem in guarding all our installations. What is now needed is a government program. This problem should not be entrusted to one isolated agency or another. Everyone, all people with brains and imagination, should gather together all involved parties in the country into one collective.

The Kurchatov Institute, because we were able to find a proper balance with the Americans, we've gathered a creative team. We were able to come up with a modern concept of security. We will now be able to understand how to guard these difficult facilities. If we were starting from scratch, it would be easier to construct a security system. If only we were not dealing with so many existing factors, the surrounding residential homes, for example, It's a very complex system, but we have now come to the understanding that we know how to do this. If we really put our minds to it, it would be possible to design a security system at the institute. It would, at least, make Moscovites feel more secure. It is such a dangerous place, right in the center of Moscow. We are now trying to present the proposal for security measures to the government, something that could be copied at other installations, and I think that today, we are closer than others to this goal.

Q: You are saying that where Kurchatov is situated is very dangerous. Tell me a little bit about that. How far from the Kremlin.....

BONDAREV: We are located in one of the most densely populated districts of Moscow. Then there is also the Moscow River, which poses a danger in the case of an accident. What could happen at the Kurchatov institute? There is a danger of a discharge of radioactive materials. Which part of Moscow will be affected? Which way is the wind going to blow? I can't say. What can happen is that much of the population might become displaced and become refugees. We understand the danger of that. That's why we feel that serious security measures need to be put in place. Moscow is all heavily populated. The issue is not just the Kremlin. The loss of any part of Moscow for a long period of time is an unimaginable danger. We are now looking into, hoping to propose a plan to classify fissile materials, based on the danger they pose. It's one thing to have a reactor in the center of a city and another to have it in the middle of the tundra. This is something we must understand and so initiate adequate safety measures.

Q: Sometimes I lay awake at night when I'm worrying about my job, when you lie awake at night, what is your biggest worry?

BONDAREV: You know, these days sleeping is really tough, because we get various warnings that there are these aggressive groups, and that urgent measures must be taken. It's tough to be calm when one is unsure that everything has been taken care of. We are unable to do everything today. That's why all the people who are involved in security, the military, our staff here, all of us are finding ourselves under a lot of stress. There are those people who are not fazed by any of this, like stone, and it doesn't matter to them. I'm not that way, so until the security is such that one could sleep without worries, we'll have to lose some sleep.

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