Blocking a dangerous 'brain drain'

February 24, 1992

"Brain drain," much discussed during the 1960s when the Third World's best and brightest scientists were being lured away to the United States, carries sinister overtones when applied to nuclear technologists from the former Soviet Union. That's why the Americans are not the only ones trying to prevent it. Germany's Hans-Dietrich Genscher recently signed an accord with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, to support an international center that Americans have pushed to help the bomb specialists keep working while they convert to more peaceful pursuits.

Having watched the specter of nuclear holocaust recede along with the Cold War, no one in the industrialized world wants to see it reborn as a terrorist threat. Such a threat could come from the unstable government of a Third World strongman or even from a yet-to-be-recognized guerrilla group.

It could happen. The Tajikistan newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta reports that uranium for Soviet nuclear bombs was mined in that newly independent republic, where the paper says a uranium enrichment facility is still in place. The German magazine Stern recently said Tajikistan had sold uranium to Libya, a claim denied by the Tajik President Rakhman Nabiyev during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. It is known that Iran, for one, has been wooing the Tajiks. U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., FTC believes Pakistanis are trying to build an "Islamic bomb," possibly to be shared with a planned Islamic federation to include their country, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and five former Soviet Muslim republics.

Pakistan and India, both pushing for their own nuclear arsenals, have made scary claims of bomb capability. A nuclear race between the two could draw in specialists as well as materials now based in Tajikistan or from Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, where Soviet nuclear missiles have been based. North Korea, already a source of concern, is another likely recruiter, especially after the many years Soviet specialists have spent there.

The combination of economic disarray in the republics, uncertain futures for former Soviet military experts and the drive of nations with less powerful conventional forces for a nuclear equalizer could fuel a deadly brain drain. Against such dangers, the price of donations by Western nations to a center designed to give Soviet scientists and engineers alternatives to mercenary service seems small. No one supported political and military rapprochement between the West and the Soviets just to begin a new, perhaps more dangerous face-off with a legion of smaller nuclear antagonists.

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