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A story of the US-Russian scientific collaboration in the Post-Cold War Era

June 05, 2017

Hecker (right) meeting Yuli Khariton, scientific leader of Russia’s nuclear weapon lab on Feb. 23, 1992 in the formerly secret city of Sarov.

(Image Credit: Siegfried Hecker)

When the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, the threat of mutually assured destruction was replaced by the danger that Russia’s new government would lose control of the nuclear assets it inherited from the Soviet Union. The safety and security of its tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, over a million kilograms of nuclear bomb fuel (plutonium and highly enriched uranium), a huge nuclear infrastructure, and uncertain job prospects for some one million employees of the once-powerful Soviet nuclear establishment – posed an unprecedented risk for Russia and the world.

The Office of International Affairs met with Siegfried Hecker, Professor (research) in the Department of Management Science and Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), who has recently published a book titled “Doomed to Cooperate” that describes how nuclear experts in the U.S. and the Soviet Union collaborated to prevent potential nuclear disasters and jointly followed their passion for science during the Post-Cold War era.

Q. Tell us what your recent book, Doomed to Cooperate, is all about.  

A. In the book scientists and engineers from Russian and US nuclear weapons laboratories describe how we transitioned from confrontation to collaboration in the early 1990s to mitigate the four existing or potential nuclear dangers resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union – namely, loose nukes, loose nuclear materials, loose experts and loose exports. It was a remarkable effort that spanned over 20 years that helped to avoid a nuclear catastrophe by improving nuclear safety and security in post-Cold War Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. 

Q. How serious was the situation when you first initiated the lab-to-lab collaboration?

A. The U.S. and the world were alarmed when Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was put under house arrest in an attempted coup on August 18, 1991. The coup failed, but it was the beginning of the end for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, which was officially dissolved into 15 separate states on December 25, 1991. President George .W. Bush and the US Congress stepped in to provide technical and financial assistance to help Russian president Boris Yeltsin confront the four nuclear dangers. The lab-to-lab collaboration was initiated when John Nuckolls, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and I, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, visited the counterpart weapons labs in Russia in February 1992.

The situation in Russia was sufficiently dangerous that David Hoffman in his book The Dead Hand called it an “inheritance from hell.” In other words, the US government considered everything associated with the former Soviet nuclear complex as dangerous, so US assistance was focused on dismantling and eliminating as much of it as possible.  

Q. What is very interesting to me is that there was more to the lab-to-lab collaboration than preventing the dangers. Tell us about what the collaboration had achieved beyond deterring a potential nuclear catastrophe. 

A. When I first visited the Russian nuclear weapons labs in 1992, I realized that their scientists and engineers were motivated much like we were in the U.S. – that is, to help defend our countries. They had an enormous sense of responsibility for the safety and security of their nuclear weapons. Also, their scientists, just like ours, wanted to create new knowledge. Their engineers, like ours, wanted to build things. In other words, meeting them was like looking in a mirror.

Hence, our first collaborations were focused on making scientific discoveries. For example, through a particular synergy of expertise, we were able to do experiments that yielded world-record magnetic fields, with which to better study materials. We recognized that we could build a bridge through science to the other more sensitive issues, such as nuclear weapons safety, nuclear materials security and nuclear facilities. The excitement about potential benefits of scientific partnerships led to the scientists being able to convince the security services on both sides to allow unprecedented access to nuclear sites and facilities for such collaborations. 

Professor Siegfried Hecker
Professor Emeritus of Management Science and Engineering; 
Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Thanks to these scientific collaborations, which got a very fast start, we demonstrated the ability to work together, built trust and personal relationships, and subsequently worked on all four of the nuclear dangers. As we look back now after 25 years, the perfect nuclear storm we were concerned about didn’t happen. There were no loose nukes, very little leakage of nuclear materials, very little leakage of nuclear weapons expertise, and Russia has become a responsible exporter of civilian nuclear technologies.

"The most Important lesson is the value of human relationship. Personal relationships matter and building trust is essential to make progress."

Q. What do you think were some of the key factors that enabled the collaboration to be successful?

A. The human dimension – that is personal relationships – was essential. It didn’t take us long to understand that scientists and engineers on both sides had very similar motivations. We knew that we were not supposed to discuss sensitive topics such nuclear weapon design. However, we could work on methods and practices to keep nuclear weapons and materials safe and secure. When it came to scientific collaboration, there were no barriers.

Another success factor was respect for each other’s scientific skills and technical knowledge. The Soviet nuclear research establishment was superb. We treated each other as equals in spite of the fact that the US government was providing the financial assistance for our collaborations since the Russian government experienced enormous economic hardships in the 1990s.

These were also times when both governments faced unprecedented challenges that often resulted in chaos in their bureaucracies. Those times proved to be advantageous to us scientists; they allowed us greater influence to pursue new initiatives.

Q. Did you continue lab-to-lab collaboration with the Russians after you came to Stanford in 2005?

I transitioned from the directorship at Los Alamos to return to the scientific staff in November 1997. At that time, I greatly stepped up my work with the Russian nuclear complex. I continued that until I came to Stanford. Here, I run the Nuclear Risk Reduction Project, which includes Russia, but also encompasses nuclear issues in China, North Korea, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, and Iran. The book was a project I pursued for six years while here at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

Q. The U.S.-Russia relationship has extremely strained recently. How do you think the political situation impacted the collaboration and how can we revitalize the academic collaboration? 

A. Very true. Nuclear cooperation has been declining for nearly 10 years and it essentially stopped after Russia annexed Crimea in February 2014. The Russian government had increasingly curtailed nuclear security cooperation and the US government cut scientific cooperation after Crimea.

Americans and Russians analyze radiological terrorism scenarios during a "Young Professional Nuclear Forum" organized by Prof. Hecker in Moscow in April 2017.

Image Credit: Siegfried Hecker


It is difficult to imagine how we could return to the successful collaborations of the early 1990s and 2000s. For example, a group of my colleagues who work in the area of “high energy-density physics” collaborated on over 400 papers and presentations with their Russian colleagues over 20 years. 

I was in Russia at the end of April trying to rekindle scientific and educational collaboration. I focused primarily on developing cooperation between the younger generations from both sides. I brought five young professionals from U.S. universities including one from Stanford to the “Young Professional Nuclear Forum” co-sponsored with the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute). We did a tabletop exercise to look at the threat of nuclear terrorism to help our governments think through the issues and find ways to prevent radiological terrorism; that is the “dirty bomb” threat. I also participated in a seminar on North Korea with a number of Russian North Korea experts. And, my Russian nuclear weapons lab colleagues told me that they received approval from their government to publish the book, Doomed to Cooperate in Russian.  

Q. How were your experiences in leading the lab-to-lab collaboration beneficial to your other research projects at Stanford?

A. The “Nuclear Risk Reduction Project” focused on global nuclear risks takes a similar approach to and has benefitted from the Russian collaborations. I work primarily by engaging the technical specialists in other countries to identify the risks and examine how we can cooperatively mitigate the risks.

The most Important lesson is the value of human relationship. Personal relationships matter and building trust is essential to make progress. Scientists share a common language of science. We are driven by the search for knowledge and are not driven by ideologies.

The second lesson is to listen. Americans who visit other countries typically do too much talking and not enough listening. During my visits, I try to stay long enough to listen and to understand issues from their perspectives – as well as to learn something about the people and the culture of the land. I have done that with 53 visits to Russia to date.

Q. If you were to write a new book, what would be the topic for your next book?

A. It would be on North Korea, which I actually thought about starting about a year ago, but I have decided to wait because of the continuing nuclear crisis there. I have been in North Korea seven times. I had access to their nuclear facilities, their nuclear experts, and their diplomats. I would find it interesting to reflect on my visits both from a human dimension and political point of view. Along the way, I would try to construct the story as to how an isolated country like North Korea was able to build a nuclear arsenal in spite of international sanctions. Eventually, I am interested to write something more on a global scale about the role of scientific diplomacy in the in the nuclear arena.