WASHINGTON -- When the Soviet Union throws open its borders to would-be emigres this January, thousands of scientists who design and build nuclear weapons will face a decision that has government officials biting their nails from here to Moscow.
It is the nightmare prospect of Soviet "nuclear mercenaries" ending up anywhere from Iran to North Korea to Libya.
"After January, all the doors are open, and it is like the Wild West," said one Soviet official tracking the issue. "Some of these people, they have no scruples at all. They won't give a damn if it is Saddam Hussein or anyone else [who hires them], as long as there is work."
Such a possibility is realistic, he and other authorities say, because there is so little incentive for the Soviet scientists to stay.
Those who do can expect a bleak winter of unemployment brought on by 40 percent budget cuts in the Soviet nuclear program, or, if they're lucky, continued employment at low wages that for many are less than a bus driver makes. And even the higher-paid scientists will be trapped in the same crumbling economy, with its chronic shortages and ever-lengthening bread lines.
Those who leave, on the other hand, might be able to name their price in any of several places where governments want nuclear weapons expertise.
Anyone doubting that a few imported scientists can make much of an impact need only look back to 1945, when the United States plucked rocket scientist Werner von Braun from the ashes of Nazi Germany to jump start U.S. missile research and the space program.
That kind of potential impact causes officials to view the nuclear mercenary issue as a far greater danger than the already publicized fear that a Soviet nuclear weapon might fall into the wrong hands amid the chaos of political disintegration.
"You have scientists whose raison d'etre disappeared at the end of the Cold War," said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Russian and Soviet Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "They are ripe for offers from abroad."
Though estimates vary, authorities and government analysts say there are probably from 3,000 to 5,000 scientists with knowledge of such vital facets of nuclear arms production as uranium enrichment -- generally the most difficult step in building a weapon -- or bomb design.
Mr. Potter, who led a workshop of U.S. authorities on such issues last month in Moscow, said Soviet officials told him that "Soviet nuclear scientists have been approached by foreign governments for employment."
Apart from the economic incentives, Mr. Potter cites "the ideological, religious, ethnic, and historical ties" to Middle Eastern countries of some of the scientists in some of the southern Soviet republics. He also warned that there are far more people to worry about than the 3,000-5,000 at the heart of the nuclear weapons program.
"On top of that you have all of the people who have served in the Soviet armed forces in one capacity or another and have worked around or otherwise used nuclear weapons in their daily routines," Mr. Potter said.
"Then you have the people in the nuclear power sector who, while they may not be working with nuclear weapons, per se, have skills which would be of use to a potential proliferant."
In addition, he said, there are about 100,000 Soviet scientists with high enough security clearances to have obtained information that could be helpful to a fledgling weapons program.
To keep track of at least some of those people, U.S. intelligence services are stepping up efforts "in terms of developing analytical capabilities and increased resources," one U.S. official said. And keeping tabs on the mercenary issue will be one of the first chores of the CIA's new Non-Proliferation Center that opened in September.
But authorities here and in Moscow say that not even the Soviet government seems to have a firm handle on who knows what, much less the ability to keep track of the scientists if they start leaving in January. Nor is anyone likely to suggest trying to keep scientists from leaving.
That's especially true for the United States, which has long made a human rights issue out of restrictive Soviet emigration policies. One of the most frequently cited examples has been Andrei D. Sakharov, the nuclear weapons designer-turned-dissident who was repeatedly denied permission to leave the country until 1989, the final year of his life.
So, U.S. officials are trying to think of other ways to make the scientists stay put, such as helping to pay for research to determine the best way to disarm Soviet nuclear weapons.
Thousands would be dismantled under the recent arms treaty agreement, and other countries might keep the scientists employed doing this by picking up the tab, one official said. "At the policy level, there is a sense of urgency," he said. "You need to keep these people in the country or at least find some safe avenues."