Machine-Gunning Mosquitoes: Adventures in Nonproliferation

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Operation Crossroads was a series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 25, 1946. (Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Grantees in this story

August 29, 2016, marks the 25th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, which saw more than 450 nuclear tests carried out by the former Soviet Union. In his new book, Doomed to Cooperate, Siegfried Hecker tells the story behind the story, a historic marker to the end of nuclear animosity between the two superpowers and—it was hoped—a milestone in the beginning of an era of cooperation. For William H. Tobey, former deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), it is “the greatest nonproliferation story never told.” Until now.

The view on the street was both shocking and depressing. Deserted laboratories, electrical and water shortages, unoccupied security guard posts, and scavengers collecting loose materials became common sights. Long-delayed and paltry paychecks, shortages of consumer items in the stores, and scientists driving taxicabs were too often the order of the day throughout the country. Little-known foreign companies with questionable interests were hiring Russian scientists, which added to international concerns. And scenes of poorly guarded sensitive materials, together with deteriorating conditions in closed nuclear cities, shook Western governments to their very core.

This is how Glenn E. Schweitzer, first executive director of the International Science and Technology Center, remembers conditions in Russia in the 1990s. Economic chaos. Emergent states reeling as they tried to secure a foothold in a new world. But most ominously, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that one of the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles was suddenly up for grabs.

Today, when relations between the two superpowers are so fraught, it may be hard to believe that Russian and American nuclear scientists, engineers, and professionals once came together in a campaign toward the eradication of the threat of the Soviet nuclear stockpile. But they did. Visiting each other’s labs, tracking nuclear materials through unstable post-Soviet states, and making and sharing discoveries at conferences, American and Russian experts learned that they had far more in common than they could have ever imagined.

A Tale of Three Cities: Moscow, DC, and . . . Monterey

In Doomed to Cooperate, Stanford professor and former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory Siegfried Hecker explores the partnership that forged friendships among rivals, setting a dangerous world on a path to peace. Unfolding over two volumes of recollections, roundtables, and (often vivid) impressions written by the Russian and American experts who were there, Doomed to Cooperate illuminates a shared dedication to science and an ability to see beyond stereotypes and preconceptions.

Fiercely competitive for half a century, the scientists and other experts from both “sides” shared the same deep respect for the atom and its awesome capabilities. Dr. Georgy N. Rykovanov, scientific director of the All-Russian Research Institute for Technical Physics (VNIITF), recalled the collaborative spirit of the project. “All week long . . . we met with representatives of the working groups, both theoreticians and experimentalists, in their respective fields of explosion physics, shock waves, and materials studies. They shared results of their recent research projects to look for points of common interest. After the meetings, back at the hotel, half the night we spent on digesting the day’s worth of information and on preparing comments for the next day. . . . It is hard to imagine a more intellectually stimulating way to pass the time.”

As Russian and American counterparts discussed hydrodynamic instabilities, plutonium science, and compact electron accelerators, each was also experiencing a new country—and that of a former foe—for the first time. Their impressions add a dimension of human warmth to Hecker’s book, and the reader can begin to imagine how a project on the scale of nuclear collaboration between recent enemies could have possibly come about—much less been a success. For example, a scientist with the All-Russian Research Institute for Experimental Physics (VNIEF) recalls trying to make tea on his first trip to a conference in the U.S. “For some reason,” Evgeny E. Meshkov recalls, “we could not use the hotel water heaters, so taking into account the advice of my experienced friends, I made a heater of two safety razor blades. I did it in a hurry and apparently not skillfully enough because as soon as I tried to use it, the lights immediately went off. First, I was confused how to tell the hotel staff that I caused a short circuit in their nice hotel, and then I realized what to do. I called the reception and informed them in an innocent voice that my TV was out of order. Soon an electrician came and began to examine my TV. I gently hinted to him about my predicament, and he promptly repaired everything.”

American delegations enjoyed similar experiences. Los Alamos’s James W. Toevs remembers a trip to Snezhinsk, “an attractive city on the eastern edge of the Ural Mountains, an area with many beautiful lakes—and many very healthy mosquitoes. Our guards were troops from the Ministry of the Interior and had long bayonets rather than guns. At one point we heard automatic weapons fire in the distance. We asked our guards the purpose of the weapons fire. They replied, straight-faced, ‘To keep down the mosquitoes.’”

Scientists shared hundreds of visits to the labs of their former rivals, making great strides in collaborative research, and they began to comprehend the nuanced economic and political realities that their scientific counterparts on the “other side” were dealing with. The initial frostiness that marked the first meetings soon melted away. Science was at the forefront of these engagements, but cordial personal relations and professional admiration propelled the joint projects forward. “I always dreamed,” recalls Dr. Viktor N. Mikhailov, Russia’s first Minister of Atomic Energy, “of seeing how US experts work at the Nevada Test Site. I can tell you they are excellent experts, very friendly, very warm people. We have cut a window into their hearts as well.” Hecker adds that the window into their hearts worked both ways and it “also opened windows into our minds.”

The close cooperation of the world’s two most advanced nuclear scientific communities led to major breakthroughs. To date, the two institutes at which research was undertaken have conducted more than 25 joint experimental campaigns as well as countless other theoretical, analytical, and manuscript projects, resulting in the presentation of over 400 papers at international conferences or in technical journals. Two principles guided this cooperation: side by side as equals and step by step. Meaningful collaboration requires mutually agreed upon principles as well as patience and diligence. Doomed to Cooperate is enlivened by the recollections of the technical side of the debates and discoveries made during these collaborations, deftly written by the foremost experts in their fields.

In the face of the manifest dangers posed by nuclear proliferation, cooperation was not a novelty. It was a necessity, a process that neither the U.S. nor the former Soviet Union had the luxury to ignore or to postpone. This was true then, and it remains true today. Hecker’s timely book is a testament to what countries—even onetime, bitter enemies—are capable of when they look beyond their differences and work together.