Interviews

ALEXANDER EMELYANENKOV

ALEXANDER 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 magazine "Observer."

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 budget.

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 the problem?

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 at all.

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 industry.

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 happen.

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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