Secret cities get dollars

October 16, 1998

Russian nuclear scientists, tempted to emigrate to countries eager to acquire their skills for military purposes, will be paid to stay put under a new agreement signed by United States energy secretary Bill Richardson.

The US will allot $20 million in assistance to scientists and workers in 35 formerly secret and semi-secret cities and facilities of the nuclear defence industry.

These, like all government-paid workers in Russia, are particularly vulnerable to downswings in the economy since, when short of ready cash, the Russian government simply defers payingwages, sometimes for months at a time.

Drastic action, such as a hunger strike, wins a temporary respite for a particular sector, but within a few months the arrears of wages build up again.

Russia's new government started well with a pledge to pay off its debts to nuclear and arms workers and it carried out its promise. But the pay-off was accompanied by a decision to cut 45,000 jobs in the sector before the end of the year.

This triggered US fears that the redundant scientists might get tempting offers from third-world countries with nuclear ambitions.

The US has been providing assistance to impoverished Russian nuclear scientists since 1994. According to the newspaper Novyye Izvestiya, it is probably one of the few instances of US aid which has really helped the intended recipients. Even so, the response to the announced job cuts was rapid - reflecting high-level concern in Washington.

This latest aid package, which will formally be part of an anti-nuclear proliferation programme, will be targeted on the city of Sarov, formerly the Armazas-16 secret nuclear centre east of Moscow.

It will be financed not only from the US budget but also from various US and European private funds and companies.

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