Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuclear Cities' Secrets Revealed

In the wake of several German sting operations in recent months, plutonium has become one of the most talked-about metals in the world. While Russia has quite a bit of weapons-grade plutonium (estimates range from 100 to 200 tons), it is still obviously not something you can just buy on the street. Before beginning one's own sting operation, one should have at least some idea where -- in principle -- weapons-grade plutonium might be up for sale and where it most likely is not. Moscow's renowned Kurchatov Institute, for example, does not have a single nuclear-weapons specialist and does not produce any nuclear-weapons materials.

All military atomic production in Russia is concentrated in 10 closed "atomic cities," administered by the Nuclear Power Ministry. In Soviet times, that ministry was enigmatically called the Ministry of Medium Machine Building or Sredmash. In the West, of course, nuclear facilities are also closed to the public, but Russia took this process to the extreme. It built an entire closed atomic empire, completely isolated from both foreigners and Russians. These closed cities were surrounded by vast defensive perimeters manned by troops from the Interior Ministry. The closed zone called Arzamas-16, for example, occupies 200 square kilometers.

Residents of these closed cities not only live there and make nuclear weapons without ever needing to go outside the barbed wire, they also have their dachas there and plots where they plant the potatoes that are now becoming an increasingly important part of their diet.

In addition to these 10 atomic cities, Russia has more than 100 other closed cities and settlements that are run by other ministries, especially the Defense Ministry. All of these, however, are smaller than the atomic cities. In all, 1.5 million Russians live in closed areas, with over 700,000 of them living in the 10 atomic cities.

All Sredmash's atomic cities were built on Russian territory, so when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, not a single important nuclear-weapons facility was stranded in the "near abroad."

All the closed cities remain closed to this day. However, it is considerably easier to get in than it used to be. Even a foreigner can make it now by pretending to be a journalist and paying a bribe to the right bureaucrat.

Here is the full list of Russia's closed atomic cities (the formerly strictly secret official name of each city is given in parentheses):

1. Arzamas-16 (Kremlyov): 80,300 residents. This is the location of the Institute of Experimental Physics, the primary nuclear research institute in the country. Here, nuclear materials are processed, test bombs are assembled and scientific research is conducted. In addition, Arzamas-16 is home to the electro-mechanical factory Avangard, which produces nuclear warheads for the military. The city is the unofficial capital of Russia's atomic archipelago and the country's first closed city, founded in 1946.

2. Chelyabinsk-70 (Snezhinsk): 46,300 residents. The city is home to Russia's second most important nuclear research facility, the Institute of Technical Physics. Here, nuclear materials are processed, test nuclear devices are assembled and scientific research is conducted. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin declared Chelyabinsk-70 and Arzamas-16 the "Russian Nuclear Center."

3. Krasnoyarsk-26 (Zheleznogorsk): 90,300 residents. This city has an underground chemical plant and foundry at which weapons-grade plutonium is produced. The plant has three nuclear reactors and the world's only underground nuclear power plant. It produces ultra-pure rare-earth metals and has an underground facility for assembling space satellites and underground nuclear-waste storage. A plant for processing spent nuclear fuel has not yet been completed.

4. Tomsk-7 (Seversk) 107,700 residents. Produces weapons-grade plutonium and mass-produces weapons-grade uranium. Here, the cheapest and most effective method of producing enriched uranium was developed. This is the proposed site for underground storage for Russia's 100-ton weapons-grade plutonium surplus.

5. Chelyabinsk-65 (Ozersk): 83,500 residents. Used to be the main center for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Now it reprocesses radioactive waste and produces radioactive isotopes to sell for scientific use. The local factory Mayak has formed a joint venture with the British firm Amersham Ltd.

6. Penza-19 (Zarechny): 61,400 residents. The Penza Instrument Assembly Factory assembles and dismantles nuclear warheads. The Scientific Research Development Institute of Radioelectronic Technology, designs nuclear warheads.

7. Sverdlovsk-44 (Novouralsk): 88,500 residents. Processes enriched uranium.

8. Sverdlovsk-45 (Lesnoi): 54,700 residents. Assembles and dismantles nuclear warheads.

9. Krasnoyarsk-45 (Zelenorgorsk) 63,400 residents. Produces enriched uranium.

10. Zlatoust-36 (Tryokhgorny): 29,800 residents. Assembles and dismantles nuclear warheads.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security editor for Segodnya.