Ex-Soviet bomb makers plead for civilian work

May 15, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- They were master builders of mass destruction, the chief architects of the 30,000 atomic and hydrogen warheads the former Soviet Union placed on the scales in the Cold War's balance of terror.

Yesterday, these engineers and physicists came to the University of Maryland to make deals, not war.

Speaking to about 50 U.S. corporate and government officials, scientists from Russia's Institute for Technical Physics in the once-secret town of Chelyabinsk-70 -- where two-thirds of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was designed -- pleaded for "foreign partners" for non-military business ventures.

They outlined plans to make and sell everything from titanium wheel rims for sports cars to parquet flooring to special bulldozers designed to move radioactive earth.

"There are a few of our scientists who are becoming real businessmen," said a proud Evgeny N. Avrorin, 50, a slight physicist with icy blue eyes who began designing bombs at the institute in 1955 and is now chief scientist there.

The Chelyabinsk facility, he said, has not abandoned weapons design, but about half its 16,000 employees are now working on commercialprojects. Meanwhile, he said, he has only enough money to pay half the staff.

Western governments once feared that many of the Institute's 5,000 scientists might be recruited by terrorist regimes hoping to build their own nuclear bombs.

So far, Dr. Avrorin said, that hasn't happened and isn't likely to. Instead, he said, many are learning to be good capitalists, despite a freeze on new construction, budget cuts and inflation-ravaged salaries.

But some researchers are clearly going through a difficult period of adjustment. "Safety has been stressed strongly, of late," said a slightly puzzled-sounding Alexander N. Averin, deputy head of Chelyabinsk's Explosion Physics Department.

The explosives expert also told the conference that it was hard to find non-military uses for his research, outside of some highly specialized applications.

One of them, curiously enough, is arms control. The institute is designing technology for blowing up Soviet tanks being dismantled as part of weapons reductions agreements, in a way that conserves expensive explosives and preserves the scrap value of the metal.

Dr. Avrorin, meanwhile, lamented that the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has made it difficult for the institute's scientists to use their expertise in nuclear physics to build and sell devices that employ radioactive materials, such as machines that sterilize food.

"There is widespread radioisotope phobia," he said.

Most of the institute's manufacturing efforts are more mundane. Officials said they plan to make titanium wheel rims for sports cars using precision rolling mills once used to fabricate bombs. And they plan to use ultra-high-compression technology, designed for shaping explosive materials, to press wood chips into parquet flooring or fuel pellets.

The Institute also plans to make the fiber-optic cable needed for an ambitious effort by a consortium of Russian organizations to begin building an advanced-technology telephone and cable television system. The country now has one-seventh the number of telephones per capita in the United States.

Skeptical U.S. communications specialists at the College Park conference pointed out that such an advanced system would be too expensive to build in this country.

But Anatoly Y. Barulin, an institute physicist helping organize the project, said it would be much cheaper in Russia, where about half the population of 150 million lives in high-rise apartment buildings.

The three-day conference, sponsored by the University of Maryland's Center for Post-Soviet Studies, was designed to put Dr. Avrorin'sgroup and other top Russian scientists in touch with executives of America's high-technology firms. It ends today.

But few executives were there. The crowd was dominated by engineers and scientists from private-sector research centers, such as Bell Laboratories, and from various arms of the U.S. government, including the United States Arms Control Agency, and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Some participants said U.S. officials are still suspicious that the Russians might use profits from Chelyabinsk's ventures to underwrite weapons work. But Dr. Avrorin said most scientists are eager to begin working on civilian projects.

Not everyone at the conference was skeptical. Hans Bethe, who supervised the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II, was impressed.

"I think Avrorin is a man that can be trusted," the scientist said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.