U.S. company to help sell Russia's nuclear secrets

April 08, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Some of the most closely held secrets of Russia's premier nuclear research institute will be sold to the rest of the world through a U.S. company in a marketing deal signed here yesterday.

The U.S. company, New York-based National Patent Development Corp., signed an agreement with the huge Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy to market the institute's technology, much of which was developed for military purposes. National Patent plans to help convert the technology to peaceful uses, then sell it, said Jerome I. Feldman, president and chief executive of National Patent.

"They have 10,000 scientists and engineers, they're all working, and they're all very, very creative," Mr. Feldman said. "There's not a counterpart to them anywhere in the world, and for the first time we can unleash this power for the good of the world."

As developer of the first Soviet nuclear bomb and more recently a leader in nuclear fusion experimentation, Kurchatov has been the backbone of the nuclear industry here.

Americans who associate Russian nuclear technology with the poorly designed reactors linked to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and with the more recent accident at the Sosnovy Bor nuclear plant near St. Petersburg might wonder about the sort of technology this nation has to offer.

National Patent, in fact, is selling nuclear safety to Russia through a subsidiary, General Physics, which is based in Columbia, Md. General Physics has just signed a $15 million contract to build a nuclear reactor simulator at Sosnovy Bor on which nuclear operators will be trained.

Nikolai N. Ponomarev-Stepnoi, first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute and president of the Russian Nuclear Society, said yesterday that flaws in Russian nuclear technology were one result of the preoccupation with defense.

"Much more money was spent in defense than in civil projects," he said, "and that assured a high level of technology and a high level of reliability. Unfortunately, these things were not done in the national economy. There was not enough money.

"Unfortunately, until recently we had a very strict boundary between activities for defense purposes and those for economic purposes. Actually, it looked like an iceberg."

National Patent plans to find out what kind of technology is available at Kurchatov, help convert it for use in peaceful purposes, then sell it in the West.

Mr. Feldman said National Patent will invest $1 million in Kurchatov immediately "and whatever is needed beyond that."

He said such an investment would permit Kurchatov to continue its work and keep its scientists employed, perhaps lessening the temptation for them to emigrate. The average pay for Kurchatov scientists is 2,000 rubles a month -- about $20.

Mr. Feldman said his company has experience bringing technology from East to West. It brought the soft contact lens from Czechoslovakia and surgical stapling from the former Soviet Union.

At Kurchatov, he is looking at fusion technology and desalination, among other things.

Mr. Ponomarev-Stepnoi said Kurchatov had developed a small, independent nuclear system for the military that can be used to supply electricity and heat and desalinate water in remote areas. That system, which could have civilian applications, was demonstrated to the National Patent and General Physics executives yesterday.

Mr. Feldman was left trying to convince himself that this was really happening.

"We're talking about access to technology that will have worldwide applications," Mr. Feldman said. "I'm just stunned by the magnitude of the opportunity. Five years ago, you couldn't even conceive of sitting here at this table with this gentleman. You couldn't even know his name five years ago."

The institute operates in such secrecy that reporters were not allowed to meet with its officials inside its closely guarded walls in a quiet, dusty Moscow neighborhood. Instead, the meeting was held in a small room down the street.

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