Doomed to Cooperate: How Russian and American scientists collaborated to avert nuclear disaster at the end of the Cold War

Before its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union had some 27,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled across the Republic and enough weapons grade plutonium and uranium to triple that number. When the USSR fell, nuclear experts faced a precarious dilemma - how to prevent these now "loose" nukes from falling into the hands of those who could use these materials to unleash nuclear disaster on the world?

In one of the great stories to come out of the ending of the Cold War, Siegfried Hecker recounts how he and other American nuclear scientists and engineers worked together for the first time with Russian nuclear scientists to contain the loose nuke threat in a new book: Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers

Siegfried Hecker was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from January 1986 to November 1997, during which time he was instrumental in forging the lab-to-lab nuclear cooperation with the Russian nuclear weapons complex. Hecker is also a keynote speaker in The William J. Perry Project's free online course on nuclear weapons: Living at the Nuclear Brink - Yesterday and Today

Read an exclusive excerpt from the epilogue of
Doomed to Cooperate:

by Siegfried Hecker

Doomed to Cooperate captures the critical contribution that cooperation between scientists and engineers from the US and Russian nuclear weapons laboratories made in addressing the nuclear dangers resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Today, nearly 25 years later, none of the West’s fears about the Russian nuclear complex came to pass—no disaster in the complex, no serious nuclear accidents, only minimal loss of nuclear material, limited leakage of nuclear weapons know-how or brain drain, and no nuclear weapons stolen, sold, or diverted. Continued nuclear cooperation is required to sustain these gains and to confront the potential spread of nuclear weapons to additional states or non-state actors and terrorist organizations, yet Washington and Moscow appear to hold such cooperation hostage to their current political differences.

As the Cold War ended, Washington and Moscow took historic steps to move from confrontation to collaboration. Direct collaboration between Russian and US nuclear scientists and engineers, what we call lab-to- lab cooperation, was especially crucial to address the nuclear dangers of the post–Cold War world. Before this turning point, the greatest nuclear risk was a potential nuclear confrontation between our countries. Managing that risk was in the hands of the heads of state. With the complex risk environment resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union, assuring the safety of nuclear weapons and managing the risks of the potential theft or diversion of nuclear assets required more than the country’s leadership. It became essential to enlist the leadership of the nuclear institutions as well as the individual workers to help tackle this herculean task.

In other words, the nuclear experts themselves became part of the first line of defense in averting a nuclear catastrophe. At the time, these individuals understood better than anyone the gravity and the urgency of the dangers and what was required to contain them. Directly involving these key individuals on both sides was the defining feature of lab-to- lab cooperation. Not only were these dangers managed effectively and without compromise of either side’s national security information, but the scientific community on each side also built a reservoir of trust and good will that can serve the future needs of both countries.

Seventy years of living with the bomb should have taught the entire world that nuclear is different. Splitting nuclei, which occurs in bombs and in nuclear reactors, releases energy that is a million-fold greater than the energy released in all other forms of explosives or energy-generating devices. The devastation wrought by the two atomic bombs in Japan in 1945 was so horrific that neither atomic bombs nor their more powerful kin, hydrogen bombs, have been used in anger since. Likewise, nuclear power plants are such efficient producers of electricity that a mere 400 nuclear power plants around the world have supplied nearly 15 percent of the world’s electricity with minimal carbon production in the past couple of decades. However, the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are grim reminders that nuclear safety is a never-ending quest for the international community. Preventing the use of nuclear weapons and supplying safe and secure nuclear electricity require cooperation on both state and technical levels, not isolation.

Nevertheless, Washington and Moscow have suspended most nuclear cooperation and isolated their nuclear scientists because of current political differences. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in February 2014, both governments have refused to authorize meetings between their nuclear weapons scientists and have not allowed them to attend each other’s conferences. Washington’s response to the crisis has been to impose sanctions on Russia and to demonstrate that it will not be business as usual in dealing with Moscow. Whereas Washington has expressed willingness to continue joint security collaboration, it has withheld approval for science and nuclear energy cooperation. Moscow, on the other hand, is no longer interested in security cooperation focused on its own nuclear complex but welcomes continued scientific collaboration and promotion of civilian nuclear energy. Washington appears to treat scientific and nuclear energy collaboration as a favor or concession to Moscow, which, in turn, views security cooperation to be the same for Washington. Neither acknowledges that these are necessities for both. This stalemate has shut down lab-to-lab cooperation, which had already waned in the past decade because of similarly differing priorities for cooperation. 

Lab-to-lab cooperation promoted both the pursuit of science, including nuclear energy technologies, and improvements in nuclear security in the early 1990s. Scientific cooperation tapped into the most basic interests of scientists on both sides, namely, to create new knowledge and new technologies. Science is fundamentally an interactive, cooperative pursuit, which requires exposing results to review, critique, and ultimately improvement by others. The common language of science allowed us to more easily cross cultures and borders. As the articles in this book demonstrate, the expertise and facilities of the two sides proved enormously synergistic, resulting in remarkable progress in several areas of science, which neither side could have produced alone or at least not for some time to come. We found science, unlike politics, to be a unifying force—one that allowed us to build trust through early scientific collaborations. 

Allowing the nuclear weapons scientists to move out of the shadow of Cold War secrecy through scientific collaborations and the trust built by working together had a powerful impact on enhancing nuclear security. For the nuclear weapons scientists, the progression from science to security was a natural evolution since we had practiced both from the beginning of our nation’s nuclear programs. Scientific collaboration made us realize how much we were alike. We found each other to be equally loyal and patriotic toward our countries and dedicated to the protection and defense of our nations. These interactions allowed us to overcome the natural suspicions engendered by Cold War competition. Through lab-to-lab interactions, each side gained confidence in the safety and security of their respective nuclear stockpiles. In turn, this bilateral confidence reassured a nervous world. 

Unfortunately, as the two governments appear to be returning to confrontation, these productive relations developed over 25 years are threatened. Many in the United States now ask if nuclear cooperation over the past 25 years was in the country’s best interest. Would it not have been better in the 1990s to leave Russia to deal with its economic misfortune and deteriorating nuclear complex alone? My answer is a resounding, “No!” The situation in the Russian nuclear complex in the 1990s was the most dangerous in nuclear history. Although the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation between our countries declined dramatically, the potential use of a nuclear weapon somewhere in the world increased because of the possibility of the theft or diversion of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons expertise from an economically stressed Russian nuclear complex.

The sharply different views Washington and Moscow have today of a new world order and how to respond to current international crises imperil nuclear cooperation. However, as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out recently at the annual Evgeny Primakov lecture in Moscow, confrontation is not inevitable. He framed the dilemma facing the two nations as follows: “In this way, paradoxically, we find ourselves confronting anew an essentially philosophical problem. How does the United States work together with Russia, a country which does not share all its values but is an indispensable component of the international order? How does Russia exercise its security interests without raising alarms around its periphery and accumulating adversaries? Can Russia gain a respected place in global affairs with which the United States is comfortable? Can the United States pursue its values without being perceived as threatening to impose them?”

These questions and how they are to be resolved must address a long list of national security grievances by each side. Moscow cites actions by Washington that threaten its security and undermine strategic stability—such as NATO expansion, withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, indiscriminate use of military force around the world, development of precision global strike munitions, and attempts to dominate the space and cyber domains. Partially in response to these concerns, Russia has not only increased its reliance on nuclear weapons for its security during the past decade, but it has also adopted a much more aggressive nuclear doctrine. These developments rightfully raise serious concerns in Washington and in Europe because they are viewed as lowering the nuclear threshold and as Moscow’s attempt to create space for the freedom of action it apparently wishes to exercise in its near abroad, including Eastern Europe.