EMELYANENKOV is a Moscow jouralist who has focused on nuclear issues for
several years, writing about the nuclear complex in both Russia and the United
States. His research has taken him to many sites of the weapons complex of
both countries, including the Pantex facility where the final stages of the
U.S. dismantlement procedure occurs. He is currently the Deputy Editor of the
This interview was conducted in 1996.
Q: From your professional opinion as a journalist, what do you think is the
overall situation in terms of the security of nuclear materials in Russia?
EMELYANENKOV: I have the impression that the problem is very pertinent.
It's very urgent because there are two things converging. First, worried
journalists and scientists - specialists - who have even gone so far as to
break all their ties with their organizations in order to raise the level of
consciousness of the danger and threat of nuclear materials proliferation and
inform about the various incidents that have occurred at nuclear sites. And
the other is that which defends various agencies and tries to prove the
opposite -- that these are far-fetched exaggerations. And the more actively
the proponents attempt to arouse society and make them aware of the conditions,
the more intensely these bureaucrats work to hide the facts and the actual
picture of the situation at these nuclear sites.
But, unfortunately, there's no constructive cooperation between these two.
And, it seems to me that, for the most part, the official structures -- the
heads of the various ministries -- Ministry of Atomic Energy, Ministry of
Defense, and other agencies -- are more guilty of hindering this because of
their general ideology they are not prepared to openly and constructively
discuss these issues like any other scientific issues.
Practice shows that to this day anything connected to the word 'atom' is
cloaked in secrets and restricted access. Any information that is released is
in very small doses and is very biased.
Q: It seems to me that ....the behavior you're describing suggests
that the problem is even bigger than I thought it was when I first started
researching this six months ago.
EMELYANENKOV: There's a law, I think, the law of circles. That is, the
more you understand, the more you realize that behind that problem there are
still two or three other problems that are no less difficult. But for our
citizens and perhaps for me too, the less you know, the better you sleep. It's
a good Russian proverb.
Q: Do the people believe the government any more?
EMELYANENKOV: It's hard for me to speak for everyone. I can speak
about my own feelings and the people I come in contact with. Of course, there
never was and never will be a hundred percent faith in the government. There's
just the issue of, to what degree do we believe the estimates of the experts
and the government. And I would not say that in the last couple years the
level of trust has increased. Five, six years ago there probably was more of a
predisposition to believe those who were in power. But for those in power now,
I don't think there is any more trust towards them at all, especially in terms
of issues of nuclear safety.
Q: How is the problem of the security of nuclear materials related
to economic problems in the country today?
EMELYANENKOV: They are directly related because any increase in the
security of nuclear materials requires a certain degree of expenditures. Large
amounts of money are necessary for the maintenance and operations and the
construction of modern, storage facilities, for the creation of effective
security systems, controlled automated systems, automated inventory systems,
training of personnel - which is probably the most important because this
entails not just building fences around facilities, but also training the people
to properly deal with these materials and protect them.
And the opportunities for doing this now are limited because of the federal
But there's a very dangerous inclination to just stay quiet regarding these
problems, or attempt to show that the problems aren't quite as pressing as they
would seem to be. That it's not necessary to alarm society about these issues
because there are more crucial matters to be dealt with. And we need to spend
what little money we have available on these matters. And the problems with
nuclear materials can wait. This is a very dangerous philosophy in the
agencies of the government. And we need to, if not fight this, we need to at
least discuss them and show how much the current situation is unacceptable for
what we call - or would like to call - a democratic society.
Q: How about the individuals who spent their lives in the industry
and they're not getting paid now or losing their jobs. How does that affect
EMELYANENKOV: There are those who understand how exorbitant this
colossal mechanism is which existed for many years and is simply not capable
of solving all these problems from within. And if these questions aren't
subjected to independent access and evaluation, then these problems will
continue to be hidden and continue to accumulate. And the bureaucrats at the
very top are predisposed to portray everything as being all in order.
And the people who are challenging them are facing tremendous difficulties.
It reminds me of Don Quixote fighting the windmills. These people are often
loners. Very decent people trying to change things who come forth to the
media. But they are often immediately blamed for all the problems. They're
mocked as failures. But these people, at least the ones I've encountered, are
ones who have not lost what we would call their conscience and their desire to
help their own country and these people understand the question better than
you and I.
And they see ways of solving the problems using the least amount of time and
money. But they are mostly not allowed to carry out these ideas because over
them stands a huge colossus of an administrative infrastructure and institutes,
huge corporations which have to be fed. And, in order to decide to resolve one
small local problem, they sometimes spend years and huge amounts of money to
solve the one simple problem.
Q: What kind of control does ... the government have over Minatom
as a government empire?
EMELYANENKOV: Well the Ministry of Atomic Energy is one of the
government ministries. And Minister Mikhailov must answer directly to the
Prime Minister. But I have the impression that the heads of our government -
not to mention every day citizens - simply do not comprehend the scale of
disclosure within a government.
I once called the Ministry of Machine Building (which is what the Ministry of
Atomic Energy was called until recently) "an archipelago," analogous to the
archipelago about which Solzhenitsyn wrote, the size and scale of which is
simply unimaginable. And just as soon as it opened up its walls three years
ago, immediately they again tried to hide it and to prevent people from
getting a clear picture of the huge expenditures which are being allocated for
the support of these structures, for nuclear arms and nuclear power industry.
It's a structure that developed its own laws. And sometimes these internal
laws even prevail over the government's own laws. Or at least prevail over
those laws that declare the ready access to information and the free
dissemination of information, human rights and so on.
The people who work in these ministries and under them have been deprived of
their constitutional rights because the laws of the constitution of the Russian
federation do not always protect them. They must sign certain agreements,
protecting certain secrets, or some other limits on their individual rights -
often times voluntarily, sometimes under coercion. But I have the impression
that this is not characteristic only of Russia but that similar conditions also
exist in the U.S., France, China. Specialists that work in this field realize
that there is information which they do not always have the right to divulge.
Q: Tell me how objects and institutes used to be guarded. Why in
the last five or six years has there become such problems? What has changed?
EMELYANENKOV: There's several reasons. A shortage of funds. Also,
people believed they had to put up a high fence and ask a grandmother with a
rifle, or an entire battalion of soldiers to stand guard. These soldiers were
expecting to fight for their country, but they become watchmen with rifles
instead. And that's how things worked. We believed that we were defending
these sites from an outside enemy. From the inside, there was no danger. And,
so, the protection of these nuclear sites was based on the fact that the enemy
was from outside.
But to defend against any internal dangers or threats, no measures were taken
Q: And if insiders, people who knew what the material was and how it
was protected, were determined to have stolen it, is there anything in place
now that would stop them?
EMELYANENKOV: As far as the locks go and other means of security, these
are merely secondary means of defense. Of course, there need to be modern
methods of control and inventory in those places where personnel work with
nuclear fissile materials. And the system should be clearly set up to let
everyone know that to steal or smuggle anything is simply impossible, because
this is all very strictly and carefully controlled and accounted for thanks to
computerized monitoring systems. Not these old fashioned scales where you
manually weigh something and you can always pinch off a little piece, like at a
bad bakery where people can always pinch off a little bit of the bread, or
someone could take a little sugar, a little rye, with them home. When similar
activities occur in the industries where plutonium or enriched uranium is
manufactured, this is very tragic.
Q: Even those people who have been caught and tried, they get
sentences of only probation or three years. Sentences that seem to be way out
of balance with the seriousness of the crime.
EMELYANENKOV: It doesn't matter whether we give them ten years or five
years. The crucial issue is that the fact itself, becomes a matter of broad
social concern. So that we don't just talk about some maniacs or murderers who
rape children or women. That this becomes a big sensation and all stations
talk about this. We should also discuss people who decided to make money off
such a dangerous venture and what compelled them to take such a step. What
helped them in trying to conduct this crime? Who is guilty? Who allowed them
to conduct this crime? And what were his motives? What dictated his actions?
I've never seen any reports, story or coverage of a situation like this.
Apparently we just want to save face, as though we don't have this problem.
Because situations such as this have occurred, and people are serving sentences
now for these crimes. But nothing has been told about them.
Q: So how dangerous a problem do you consider this today?
EMELYANENKOV: I could give an entire lecture on that question. If you
could give me a more specific question to answer, I could try to address that.
The situation is dangerous. We've already talked about this. And it's
difficult to even compare it with anything. There's a danger, for example, of
flooding in Moscow. There's danger of fires. There's damage to the
environment. Local problems in Moscow, for example, have been discovered the
result of previous violations of regulations, the result of negligence or
disregard. When radioactive waste from nuclear sites were just thrown out at
dumps. Yes, all of these exist.
But the danger of a nuclear explosion I don't ... I think it's pertinent only
to the extent that there are so many nuclear sites scattered throughout the
country with nuclear materials. And the problem of controlling and
guaranteeing the security of all these sites is very difficult since they are
in so many different places.
Maybe the correct response in Russia would be to undertake a course of
consolidation and concentration of these various sites to minimize the number
of locations of sites with nuclear materials-- the nuclear material that is
being freed up by arms reductions and was produced or is being produced at
various sites that manufacture plutonium or enriched uranium. But there's
incredibly large amounts of waste which don't pose a nuclear threat per se, but
pose a great threat of environmental contamination. Huge amounts of waste have
been accumulated in the ships of the nuclear fleet on the Kola Peninsula and in
the Far East. And until recent times they threw these radioactive wastes
directly into the sea.
Now that practice has been suspended, but the wastes are accumulating. And
regardless how many reliable and effective means of reprocessing and recycling
there are, none of them is affordable for the Russian economy at this time.
Q: Does any one know how much of these materials were produced over
fifty years and where it all is exactly?
EMELYANENKOV: What's known is only what's been officially acknowledged.
That the amount of plutonium and highly enriched uranium measures somewhere in
the hundreds of tons. It's known to us that within the structure of the
Ministry of Atomic Energy, there are ten top secret, closed cities. Each of
these cities is enclosed from the outside by several rows of barbed wire and is
guarded by special forces of the Interior Ministry.
Uranium and highly enriched plutonium are manufactured in these cities, and
the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons is also conducted there, as
well as other tasks necessary to the continued existence of the nuclear
Q: Workers are being laid off from their jobs, and some of the worst
parts of the new Russia, you know, the rackets and things, are beginning to go
to even those places.
EMELYANENKOV: The problem is, no doubt about it, a very worrying one.
In these closed cities, people worked mainly at one or two enterprises
connected with the nuclear undertaking. Then there was the infrastructure --
schools, day care centers, restaurants, cafes, movie houses, etc. Nothing else
was ever built in those towns. When the basic industry began to be downsized,
that's when the problems with pay and with jobs began.
Incomes of the families affected by the downsizing were drastically curtailed.
And people had been proud to be working at such facilites, making good money
and having other perks and advantages. Now these workers felt unneeded and
unwanted, forlorn and forgotten. Here they had worked their whole life, given
their all to carry out the duty they were called upon by their country to do,
and now, it seemed, no one cared about them. It's very distressing
psychologically, particularly for older people, who had worked all their lives,
and it was too late to re-train for anything else.
Minister Mikhailov and his colleagues are right when they say there are two
categories of people. Those who can be re-trained to work at some other job,
if he's a scientist, could begin developing some new, competitive technology,
that might bring in some money for Russia. And those who are incapable of
changing their mind set, or start working on something new. Those are old,
recognized nuclear weapons designers. They should be allowed to work until they
retire without the extra stress, and should be provided more or less acceptable
conditions to go on living. In between these two categories are those who seem
to have lost themselves in this new life, people with families who have lost
security together as well as a stable income. It's in this category that some
people who have exhibited criminal tendencies have emerged. Feeling perhaps
that now may be the time to radically change their personal situation - by
making large sums in one or another criminal business.
A person who's in the prime of life, with two hands, two feet, and a head on
his shoulders - but can't be provided with a job, and instead gets a pittance
in so-called benefits that won't allow him to make ends meet. Such a
situation, of course, he finds unacceptable. So the next thing he wants is to
be out of there, maybe even emigrate; anyway, it's practically impossible to
keep track of such tendencies. It's at such a moment when the brain drain
begins, when people who have the knowledge and skills consider leaving for some
other place where they might assist in developing a national nuclear program -
in one of the threshold countries, for example, or one that simply has a desire
to own a nuclear weapon.
Q: When the bureaucracy admits that anything has happened, they then
say, "But don't worry about it, because everything that's been taken has been
taken by a group of amateurs, who didn't really know what they were doing." I
find that a little troubling, because if a group of amateurs can take this
material, then if professionals got involved, who knows what's going to
EMELYANENKOV: If professionals do get involved, anything can happen. On
the other hand, professionals - people that are known - would have a much
harder time of it, because they are very visible. Getting together a deal of
some sort would be difficult. The leading specialist at the plant - chief
designer or chief engineer - he likely has his own brain, his own values and
sense of decency. I don't believe it's possible that at some nuclear plant
there could be a conspiracy of the leading figures deciding to pursue some
quasi-legal business deal. But it seems to me another sort of danger could
arise. The people at the decision-making level might decide to set up a
semi-official entity -- there may well have been such attempts already -- to
do some sort of funny business under the cover of a perfectly legal enterprise.
Maybe setting up a small business on the side, or a joint venture, whose avowed
purpose is very different, but under whose cover certain materials might
disappear, or a product design might find its way out of the plant. A chain
could start at the lowest work place right up to a high Ministry post.
The important thing is that there is interdependence between high Ministry
posts in Moscow, say, and someone who used to work with them at a facility in
one of those closed cities. The emergence of such half-legal, half-criminal
connections set up with the aim of making large sums of money - that kind of
thing would be the hardest to track down. And there lies a lot bigger danger
to the economic security of Russia. This, I think, constitutes a priority
problem for our security services and the prosecutor's office, as well as the
people concerned with security inside the atomic ministry. I don't have any
hard facts, but I do believe that with the criminal situation spreading the way
it has been, all these things are possible.
That's where a lot of undercover deals occur that are extremely hard to
detect. The Atomic Energy Ministry and other ministries working with them have
a broad range of international contacts. Foreign associates come in from
abroad, and all sorts of tempting offers are made. Because the materials that
the Atomic Energy Ministry controls can certainly be the goal of serious
business deals, and such deals are not always legal. The barriers to that sort
of thing are inadequate, so that under the cover of legitimate deals at the
state level, private individuals or shadowy organizations are benefitting.
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