Interviews

GENNADY PSHAKIN

GENNADY PSHAKIN is the head of the international department at the Obninsk Institute of Physics and Power Engineering. He has been instrumental in implementing new safeguard techniques at an institute where lax accounting and handling of nuclear materials had been the norm. He has worked closely with Americans involved in the Lab-to-Lab program to increase materials protection, accounting and control at facilities of the Russian nuclear complex.

This interview was conducted in 1996.


Q: The first time we sat down to talk about all of this, you were describing to me the period in `92-'93 when the US and Russians couldn't quite get it together in terms of cooperation. Tell me about that.

PSHAKIN: I know that it was quite a hard time for Americans, because they felt that they provided something valuable and something that Russia needs.

But I could say that the Americans -- I mean, official Americans -- maybe overestimated just little bit. Because they thought that if they provided some equipment that the Russians would just take it and start to use it.

But, unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, because you can't just give a beautiful car to a people which have spent all their lives just walking. They need time to get a sense of what a car is, what it could be used for and how to use it.

It was a bit of a bad job, but the situation did look like that. Lots of the equipment which the Americans tried to bring to the Russians was not used right away because people simply didn't know how to use it.

So that was part of the Government-to-Government program. And then the same activity started in the Lab-to-Lab program. And then things dropped down to the level of specialists. Before, it was mostly government to government, an official level of conversation.

Q: Bureaucrats.

PSHAKIN: Well, I didn't say that, but you know what it means. Then the experts started talking and the experts immediately realized what should be done to use the equipment. What kind of improvement needed to be done and how. And immediately lots of clouds of problems immediately arose and people started to, you know, smell this problem.

Because it's quite difficult to understand when you are not an expert. It's a mixture of different problems -- technical, physical, administrative, political and even some regulations from the secrecy point of view.

So, in the Lab-to-Lab program, the experts started to talk the same language. And when people start to talk the same language, it's easy to understand the needs and the problems and how problems should be solved.

So, that's why Lab-to-Lab moved much faster from the start. And also you remember, in the Government-to-Government there was a decision of your Congress or Senate that no single dollar could cross the sea from the United States to Russia, only equipment. So, that meant that all the technical support or funding was to be used on American territory. That's fine, it's understandable. But, unfortunately, it's a loophole from the American side.

And if you start looking a little bit farther and start looking at the Russian problem and try to understand how this money could be used, you will find out immediately that people need to be paid to take the equipment and to start to use it.

1992-93 was the worst economically. You remember that at that time, the ruble had fallen and practically all our finances had collapsed.

And it was really a terrible time for scientific workers and people working in science and the nuclear industry. Because there was also still the consequences from the influence of Chernobyl and the problem that our entire nuclear program was just dying.

Q: And you told me when we talked before, there were beginning to be a fair number of reports of theft of material, of smuggling, that sort of thing.

PSHAKIN: Well, you can find a quite good collection of information in the Yaderny Control Magazine. They analyze the whole situation and most of the reports happened 92-95.

The incident in Podolsk very clearly showed the problems in all aspects of materials protection, control and accounting. When there is no one who is responsible or who is involved in the protection of nuclear material, then you can see how it's possible to skim, you know, piece by piece and collect any amount of nuclear material.

This problem could have been stopped well in advance if the facility had been equipped with the kind of equipment you see in the BFS facility where there are radiation monitors, man-traps, and all this access control.

People started talking about selling or how to sell rare earth materials, like wolfram or osmium 187. There was lots of noise about that.

It's very valuable stuff and everybody wants to be, you know, a millionaire in one night. Just, you know, take some piece of something, sell it and you're happy and wealthy overnight. Well, a human being is a human being, in Russia just like everywhere else.

And at the same time, there was a transitional period when there was quite a legal gap. The Russian law wasn't yet effective, while the old law from Soviet time was, you know, slightly damaged.

So, it was a terrible time, but it also put the heat on us that we have to do something to solve these problems. That was one stimulus to start the Lab-to-Lab collaboration and the Government-to-Government program, and to improve this collaboration and to get something done.

Q: Why was it important to improve security for BFS reactor?

PSHAKIN: I had been working in this facility 25 years. I know this facility very well, I know what kind of material they have and I know this is the largest part of the nuclear material in the institute.

My first proposal to the director was that the system of protection control and accountancy in the BFS facility must be improved as soon as possible, using any money, any possibility to do so.

So, that's why we suggested starting with the BFS facility and the director went to the ministry and he talked about that and he got approval.

Q: How much material was there, what kind?

PSHAKIN: Well, in terms of nuclear material there is plutonium, which is a very, very high grade material, and also highly enriched uranium, in a form which is really very sensitive. The United States classification system calls it special nuclear material. And we have the same.

Q: It was in forms that were easy to carry and not dangerous?

PSHAKIN: Yes. I think you saw that. Did you see those disks? Quite easy to carry, quite easy to hide if you have no special technical means of detection available. And before, the system for access control was quite weak.

We had lots of, you know, holes which went straight from the material handling area to outside of the building, so that means that theoretically there was the possibility to take this material out of the building.

That's why we started to re-organize and rebuild this building as a stone sack. That's what we call this facility now.

Then the second stage was to install the man-traps and portal monitors with technical features like special access control, magnetic key cards to gain access, radiation monitors, metal detectors and a key system.

And there was immediately a jump from zero to very high level of probability.

Q: A Russian scientist said that during the cold war, "We kept producing and producing this stuff and then the cold war ended and we counted it, and we were stunned."

PSHAKIN: That's absolutely correct. You asked about hiding some material to meet quotas properly. Unfortunately, at the time when nuclear production was started, if somebody made a mistake, it would cost the life of some people for sure.

You remember it was Stalin's time and Beria's time and this whole project, I mean, our nuclear project was under Beria's department. It was NKVD. And it was a really extremely costly business, so that's why everyone was extremely careful, but a human being again is a human being. People start thinking how to escape from this deadly risk to loss of your life.

I'll briefly explain the beginning of the process. When you radiate some fuel, you cannot define or measure how much plutonium you will acquire from a particular piece of uranium. You only have the results of theoretical calculations. You start the process and finish it, and then you split the fission products after that. Only then can you really measure the plutonium you have in your hands. So that's why this whole procedure is based first in the calculations and, second, on the real measurements.

People took advantage of this procedure when they compared the actual material to the calculations in order to keep some hidden material. If there was a little bit more than was calculated, they would keep some for a future report when something happened and they get something less than expected. And that's why Mr. Fetisov said that it was really hard to make a proper accounting.

When we start thinking about making an initial physical inventory, so we can say, "From this point we count all material, we measure all material." We compare what we have with the previous calculations and decide, "Okay, this was a miscalculation," there is something missing. We investigate that.

After we've defined what the total amount of material is, then we can make a full balance and start after that to follow-up with a computerized accounting system.

Before it was mostly only on paper. And it's a hell of a lot of trouble, to fill up the whole history of 50 years. I know that the Americans had exactly the same problem when they started in Hanford. When they cleaned all the corners and found all this material and garbage around, they immediately were in big, big trouble to make a proper accounting. We have the same problem. But you started dealing with this problem sooner and solved this problem a little bit earlier.

We are now facing the same problem, even in our institute. Sometimes the scientists or researchers get some material and start to do something with it. Sometimes the scientist finishes his research, sometimes not. But then he leaves for some reason, I don't know. Either he retires or he moves to another facility or he dies. That's the worst situation and nobody can say where this material is, how much he used for research or disposed of somewhere, in some radioactive waste dump. So, we're just in a deep, deep hole.

Q: So, even at your institute, there was no central place for information about someone taking a small amount from one lab to another?

PSHAKIN: The problem was that all the material or information about the material was at different levels of sensitivity. When you started to take information from one place, you couldn't put it in the other place. So, there was no central place to compare all this information on the same sensitivity level.

This is, again, a big problem and now lots of the documents are somewhere in archives. So you have to dig through all the archives to find the real figures and compare them with some numbers. Again, it's a hell of a lot of work.

Q: You're right, that the US had the same problem, but they released an accounting some time ago. They said they had a couple of tons missing. But at this point, no one can say for sure in Russia how much was produced or exactly where it all is?

PSHAKIN: Maybe I'm a too over self-confident guy, but I am trying to initiate this work. I tried to convince our directors and some people in the ministry, but is still a big problem to make what we call a plutonium register.

There should be two parts to this plutonium register, same as in the United States. One part is the material which is used for weapons production -- of course, this is sensitive -- and there needs to be a special accounting system. That's clear.

But the other part doesn't. We have lots of material acquired in the civil part of our nuclear cycle, which also needs to be properly counted. And it's spread around the different facilities, research centers, laboratories, nuclear power stations, storage sites, and waste dumps.

So you have to dig all this history, whole archives of work at the nuclear power stations, shipments around the country, receipts from different institutes. You must compare the shipper's and receiver's accounting. This is a big problem to find a shipper-receiver difference, because we never used such a shipper-receiver difference in our accounting system. And this is more or less the international standard right now. The Americans know how to do that and we don't know. We never did it.

Q: If the producer was to send ten rods and only had nine, he would send ten anyway?

PSHAKIN: Yeah.

Q: And one of them would not have anything in it.

PSHAKIN: If you didn't check it, you didn't make a real inventory verification or entry control. You don't know what has happened. And you couldn't immediately say, "Hey guys, I checked this shipment and I found that this one pin is missing for some reason, I don't know for what reason, just this is a problem."

If you put seals on, then I could invite a representative of the producer and say, "We have to solve this problem." But if you didn't, if you have no such procedure, how do you know what happened and when? This is a big problem.

But that's what I told you before, that our whole accounting system was based only on data, which was calculated only by producer. And after that, this data must be preserved all the time around.

And that's why there is a problem now with the initial physical inventory. Because nobody was verifying when he got the material.

Q: As I'm sure you know, in the United States if there is a terrorist threat threatening the use of some sort of nuclear device - and there have been a number of them - we do several things. One is we do a personality profile of who is threatening and what style. The second thing we do is an accelerated accounting and try to figure out if anything is missing anywhere. If that happened here, an accounting of what you have wouldn't be possible?

PSHAKIN: If somebody decided -- for example, if our President decided -- to make a physical inventory in one day all around the country I'm sure nothing would happen. It's a really huge problem.

Also, Terrorists are really something new for us. And "outsider," "insider," this whole philosophy which has been used in the United States for quite long time. We just never touched this problem.

We never thought about that and now it's one part of our collaboration that we now have some computerized tools, precision analysis, vulnerability assessment analysis which can estimate the outsider threat, insider threat, how to eliminate something like it. We are starting to use it and we find lots of holes which need to be covered and it's really helped a lot.

Q: Do the four thousand or so people who've left the Institute in the last four or five years and have been forced to find another way of making a living concern you?

PSHAKIN: Well, I was never thinking about it. But, actually, now I try and think and see there were not so many people who were really handling the nuclear material. So, from the material control and accountancy point of view, I think there is a quite low number of people who really know where the material is, how it's stored, how it's counted and so on.

From this point of view, the people who left never have access again to the nuclear material. They could only organize or talk to somebody if they knew the facility and how to approach it.

But most of the people actually worked in laboratories without nuclear material.

Lots of people just left because they retired. They are people who just forget about business and they concentrate on other problems, like gardening, you know. I don't think that these people could come again to the Institute and touch the nuclear material either.

Q: I talked to several younger people at the Institute who feel that they're forced to have second jobs because they just aren't making enough money any more to feed their families?

PSHAKIN: I did the same thing thirty years ago when I was young and I felt that I didn't have enough money. Low paid. I was just starting. I was working reloading rail cars with sugar or something else.

And some people used to have uranium. Uranium is natural. Uranium or even enriched uranium. It's just metal. The radiation is very low.

You know, people who are working in a dangerous situation or with dangerous stuff like nuclear material or chemicals or explosives, for example, they start missing the point or sense of danger. And it's even more dangerous because they sometimes make very simple mistakes. And then they make trouble for everybody. It's the same with radiation workers. They have been working 20 or 30 years in radiation conditions, shuffling about uranium, uranium powder and uranium oxide, any stuff. And nobody sees the radiation. So that's why some people just don't think about it. That it's really dangerous.

And only if you get really high radiation damage do you start understanding that it's something really dangerous. So that's why the people who work in the nuclear installations must be retrained or refreshed in the knowledge of the problems connected to nuclear material handling. And it's a problem for every nation which has such technology.

Q: We talked before and I think it's pretty important to understand about the changes that are necessary in thinking to get people to become a part of what you call the safeguards culture. What do you mean by that? Give me some examples of what you're working with everyday.

PSHAKIN: I tried to explain that safeguards is quite a complicated problem for this field of activity. It's connected with a proper understanding of the social consequences of losing nuclear material, for example. It's connected with a proper understanding of how you should measure this nuclear material. It's also necessary to understand what kind of calculations you need to do. So you need good statistics, for example. You need an understanding of what kind of physical property this nuclear material has. You have to understand the regulations, the documents. You should understand the real laws connected to using this nuclear material.

And you have to understand how dangerous it is. So there are quite a big number of different fields and pieces of information which must be integrated together to understand these safeguards. And you have to follow certain rules. And you have to perform certain activities to be sure that nothing has happened so that all your management and yourself are sure that the nuclear material is in place, under control and protection and accounting.

So that's why we are starting to turn to people who have always been dealing with nuclear calculations, for example. I was physicist. I spent 20 years in fast-breeder reactor safety calculations and so on. But we also invite some people who never dealt with any nuclear materials at all -- who is only a lawyer, for example. And they have to explain to me what problems I face if I lose some nuclear material.

And we have to talk to the security people who mostly don't understand what radiation means. What gamma means. Or what neutron means. What alpha or beta means or what plutonium or uranium means. What is more dangerous. What is less dangerous. And I have to explain it to them. And also I have co-operate with these people. Because, for security people, for example, the easiest way is to just close everything and put a concrete lock on the handle and nobody could move this material and everything is okay.

But we have to work with and to live with this material. So that's why we have to educate quite a big group of people who will be working in the same field at a different facility.

But it's easy to say, it's not easy to do. We have to spend lots of time and money. And educate and train the proper personnel to keep all this stuff in the proper condition for safeguards implementation.

An example is the TID, Tamper Indicating Device, it needs to be implemented properly. For example, you have to attach the seal in such a way that nobody could move or overtake the seal. I know from my inspection working for the International Atomic Energy Agency that sometimes some people don't use the wire properly. They apply the seal in a way so that it's quite easy to take off the seals and then the nuclear material will be accessible.

So this is also requires some quite good education and training. And all these problems altogether, I could call this safeguard culture. The more people are educated in this respect, the more effective our system will operate.

Q: One of the things that has struck me in the last few months is how lots of people that I've met who are the experts essentially say, "Yes, we have a problem, but we're working on it." And they're pretty honest about the nature of the problem. But at the official level, at the government level, there seems to have been a decision to simply deny that there's a problem. And I don't understand why that seems to be the official position.

PSHAKIN: Well I'm not a politician. But my understanding is that if you are in power somewhere in the top management of the country, if somebody told you that this is a problem, you can either agree or disagree. It depends on your judgment and also on the experts who convince you about this problem. And second, if you have to correct this problem, then you have to spend something. Manpower, money, resources, something. And for officials sometimes it's much easier say, "It's no problem," and start squeezing the neck of the guys to somehow solve or shut down this problem. The easiest way is to make a good face and try to put this problem inside and solve it somehow inside without declaration. Otherwise, if you say, "Yeah, this is a problem," then you are immediately facing if you say A, you have to say B and C.

So that's my understanding. Sometimes the politicians or people who are in the power don't realize how dangerous this problem is.

Q: At the same time, if there is a dangerous situation, if it's not admitted, it can just grow more dangerous.

PSHAKIN: So it means that the judgment of real experts, of people who really understand the problem, needs to be taken into account. So it means that more people need to be asked and need to openly discuss the problem.

Q: The explanation I've heard over and over and over again that in every case that we know about where materials have been diverted it's been amateurs. And that's explained to me as if that should be reassuring.

PSHAKIN: Most of the time it was amateurs from a nuclear expert's point of view. They just take some nuclear material which is not very suitable [for a bomb] or it must be in a different form. They are amateur from this point of view. But they are businessmen. Maybe they're professional from this point of view or at least professional as a thief or something.

But it's another thing when an expert in nuclear technology starts doing business. He is absolutely an amateur from the business point of view. He knows how to take piece of this nuclear material and how to move it outside. But then he has to find somebody or some organization or people or channel to make the deal. And at this point these guys always lose. They make stupid mistakes and they immediately are in trouble.

That's what I could say about them. In Podolsk, it was expert in nuclear science, but it was an absolutely stupid movement to try and sell this stuff.

And in other cases it was people who really don't understand what kind of stuff they have in their hands.

Q: Now what happens when the expert in the technology and the good businessman come together?

PSHAKIN: They have to find a good buyer. (Laughter)

Q: I was very surprised at what the director of the Institute said that he's never received a telephone call from the intelligence services about the question that the plutonium from the Munich case might have come from Obninsk.

PSHAKIN: Well, intelligence ... they are really still intelligent. They'll still keep secret about everything if they feel something is wrong. That it's somewhere deep inside. They start their investigation, questioning people in different ways. So I think the director is really honest when he is talking about that.

Q: Oh, I believe he's honest. I'm just surprised that they wouldn't at least have a meeting with him and tell him something about what they know and ask questions about it.

PSHAKIN: Well, if intelligence gets this material, they could ask us to please make an analysis of this material and tell them what kind of property this material has and how it could be related to this facility.. So there is quite a variety of information that could be matched together to find out where this material is from. But because our intelligence service does not have any piece of material they couldn't ask us, could we check that. But sure they ask, "Everything is okay in your Institute?" And director always says, "Yes. Because all my balances, all my materials are here. Everything is checked. What you talking about?"

Q: What you said to me earlier is that in fact no one knows for sure that everything is in its place in the whole Institute.

PSHAKIN: I'll tell you a kind of scientific story that happened in Livermore. You have one ton of plutonium and you measure this plutonium very accurately, that means to half a percent of accuracy. It's extremely high. And scientists could tell this is a very good measurement. But half percent of one ton is how much? It's a five kilograms. It's five kilograms of plutonium. So it means the accuracy of the measurements is five kilos of plutonium. And five kilos of plutonium is close to a significant quantity by the International Atomic Agency definition. It means it's a big enough amount to make trouble for people.

It's the same in our Institute. We have quite a number of tons of nuclear material distributed in different locations. Some of this nuclear material is still in use and always under the touch of the researchers. So it means it's under control. Some of the material has been in storage for quite a long time. But still the old seals are intact, so it's sealed. When somebody comes to the facility and says, "This Container Number X should contain such and such amount of nuclear material. Could you show me that?" You will drive him to the storage and you see this container. It's old but sealed. It still has material inside.

And then a smart guy could say, "Did you verify this container once in a month, once in a year or once in ten years?" We say, "Yeah, maybe." So it means that possibility of losing something always exists because it's a scientific approach. You never can say one hundred percent. There's always some possibility.

This is a hint to improve our system to be sure that anytime anybody from Gosatomnadzor or from Minatom or from the president or some official comes here and asks me, "Could you check all these materials?" I could say, "Yes, okay, I have an instrument." We can go from location to location. Make random calculations and take samples, make measurements and make a balance of our nuclear material.

But if I have to start finding all the material piece by piece and spend half a minute or five minutes to measure each item, I will spend 10 years to be sure that everything is in place. And after one year I will have to go back and start again verifying that nothing happened in the meantime. That's a problem.

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