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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Scientists Sold Nuclear Study

Less than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Russia's top atomic weapons scientists agreed to sell to the United States a massive, secret study of Soviet nuclear weapons testing, providing first-hand information about Cold War events stretching over more than four decades, according to documents and interviews with key Russian participants.


The history project, which was led by Alexander Tchernyshev, a theoretical physicist at Russia's first nuclear weapons laboratory, remains shrouded in secrecy in Russia and the United States.


But the scope of the project -- a detailed, 2,000-page history of 715 Soviet nuclear tests over 41 years -- is unprecedented, and appears to have given the United States valuable insights into Soviet military and scientific procedures. It could also help American specialists better prepare to monitor any future nuclear explosions by rogue states that defy a new ban on nuclear tests.


Starting in December 1992, Tchernyshev and about 200 other scientists wrote the history under contract to the U.S. Defense Special Weapons Agency for a fee of $288,501. At the time, the scientists were suffering economically and the United States was trying to prevent them from taking their nuclear weapons know-how elsewhere.


The information the scientists provided was the objective of a long and costly detection and monitoring effort by the United States during the Cold War. By filling in the gaps, experts said, the history will help the Pentagon better understand Russian procedures, and adjust its systems to allow better monitoring of tests in the future.


A new treaty banning all nuclear tests recently was adopted by the UN General Assembly. But one presumed nuclear state, India, has refused to accept it, while Iran, Libya and possibly other countries reportedly continue to pursue programs to develop nuclear weapons.


According to a 10-page outline of the report, much of the work of the Russian scientists appears to have been on scientific themes, such as measurements of radioactivity and the impact of nuclear tests on the environment and people. The history did not directly delve into the design or deployment of the Soviet -- and now Russian -- nuclear arsenal, and would probably not affect nuclear strategy or arms control.


Tchernyshev said the Russian scientists did not divulge state secrets. However, he acknowledged that the information given the United States was "sensitive.'' He said all the material was screened by a Russian declassification process "and we have the documents to prove it.''


According to Tchernyshev, the project was carried out with the approval and participation of Russia's minister of atomic energy, Viktor Mikhailov. There is an agreement by both countries to keep most of the work confidential. Tchernyshev said the reason for the secrecy is to deter proliferation.


The project eventually produced a 17-chapter, illustrated draft report. The Defense Special Weapons Agency, which commissioned the project, is a Pentagon unit overseeing the U.S. nuclear stockpile. It also provides help in dismantling weapons and combating proliferation in the former Soviet Union.


Robert Norris, senior analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, obtained a copy of the contract and made it available to The Washington Post. Norris, who has tracked Soviet and American nuclear testing for a decade and who has pushed to open up more data about nuclear testing, described the Russian project as a potential "intelligence gold mine'' for American policy makers.


The United States paid the scientists to write detailed chapters on the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, which surprised American intelligence and President Truman; the testing of the first Soviet hydrogen bomb in 1953; the once ultra-secret Soviet atomic weapons testing complex; the long-hidden 1954 Totsk nuclear test involving ground troops; the environmental and radiation impact of hundreds of tests, both in the atmosphere and underground; and on other topics, both scientific and political.


"Obviously, it would be extremely interesting from the point of view of understanding the whole Soviet nuclear weapons complex, the level of technology, how it operated, how it took decisions, and probably understanding current issues of safety and security,'' said David Holloway, professor at Stanford University and author of "Stalin and the Bomb,'' a history of the early Soviet nuclear effort.


Holloway said the project could have practical results, helping U.S. experts see precisely how accurate had been their measurements of Soviet blasts, thus better calibrating future methods. If the recent UN global test ban is ratified, an elaborate worldwide monitoring system is envisioned to ensure compliance.


Tchernyshev, in recent interviews, described the history as a milestone in cooperation between former adversaries. He said the report helped clear up "incorrect and confused'' information that the United States gathered during the Cold War, and showed that the Soviet Union was constantly struggling to catch up to the United States.


Tchernyshev said the project was mutually beneficial, and not simply a sale of information. "It is not just going and selling goods,'' he said. "We didn't mean it like that.''


He added, "It was useful for all countries. It was not just a horse you sell. No matter how poor I was in 1992, I would never have agreed to that contract for money. We have something to be proud of. Both the American side and the Russian side have come a long way.''


The Russian scientists were facing hard times in 1992, when the study was commissioned. Tchernyshev said the United States stipulated that the payments must be made directly to nuclear scientists, not the weapons laboratory. The 200 authors each received about $500, he said, with the rest going for taxes and expenses. At the time, the average monthly wage in Russia was $38. The contract ran from December 1992 to December 1995, although Tchernyshev said the authors are still working on refining some parts.


In February 1992, barely two months after the Soviet collapse, Tchernyshev was in Washington for a conference when U.S. officials broached the history project. After several more visits to Washington, he signed a contract in December.