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Progres Seen With Russia Scientists

August 20, 1999

MOSCOW (AP) _ A U.S. congressional delegation working to keep underpaid Russian defense scientists from selling their knowledge to rogue nations made progress in talks this week, officials said Friday.

Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, and other delegation members spoke in Moscow after traveling to the closed city of Snezhinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Members of the delegation said defense scientists in Snezhinsk are warming to the idea of using their expertise in the private sector instead of selling their knowledge of weaponry to the highest bidder.

The delegation was in Russia on behalf of a U.S. government project called the Nuclear Cities Program. It aims to bring private sector high-tech jobs to Russia’s scientific centers so the scientists there aren’t lured abroad.

The program will ``not only help us with national security but is clearly moving Russians toward the new economy, toward stability, toward self sustaining, long-term gainful employment,″ Tauscher said.

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, at least 3,000 underpaid scientists with expertise in weapons of mass destruction have left the country in the last eight years. The problem, industry experts say, is wages.

Scientists and other workers at Russia’s defense centers saw their high wages and benefits disappear with the Soviet collapse. They now earn an estimated $150 a month, the delegation said.

The United States fears that countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea will try to hire on those scientists to help build weapons of mass destruction.

``At some point in time your hope just can’t last forever without some encouragement,″ said delegation member Ron Cochran, executive officer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California. ``What we need to avoid is any situation which causes them to lose hope.″

Snezhinsk in particular was a large concern. It has the site of several strikes by scientists demanding wage payments, and the Commerce Department has warned that institutes there may have been involved in nuclear proliferation activities.

But members of the delegation said Friday they were encouraged by what appeared to be a shift in the scientists’ thinking.

Previously, ``it was just beneath the dignity of the scientists to think that they would stoop so low as to produce a product that didn’t make a big light in the sky and lots of energy,″ said Janet Hauber, with Lawrence Livermore. ``This time when we traveled there we were almost overwhelmed with commercial-style proposals.″

Bringing the scientists around, though, is only half the battle for the Nuclear Cities Program. It also is trying to match the scientists with high-tech U.S. companies that could use their expertise.

The goal: to create a high-tech commercial sector in Russia similar to America’s Silicon Valley.

Though the project just started last year and no deals have been signed, computer chip maker Intel and software-maker Oracle are interested. Officials believe medical technology and telecommunication firms also may invest.

This week’s trip had political implications as well. It was part of a booster effort for the Nuclear Cities Program before what is expected to be a tough appropriations vote in Congress next month.

Tauscher admitted that it has been difficult to get the program moving. Obstacles, she said, include Russia’s struggling economy and a daunting bureaucratic system that makes closed cities like Snezhinsk hard to visit.

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