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Soviet-Era Nuclear Scientists Find New Opportunities to Expand Skills - 2003-07-15

A new training center in Moscow is teaching former Soviet nuclear weapons researchers new skills, in the hope they will use their expertise for peaceful purposes.

Official Russian government statistics note that since the 1990s, some 80,000 Russian scientists have left their homeland in search of better economic opportunities abroad.

The estimated cost to the nation of the brain drain, as the losses have come to be known, is about $60 billion. But a new program, overseen by the U.S. Energy Department and Moscow's Kurchatov Institute, is working to change that.

The program is part of the U.S. Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention Program. It is aimed at refocusing scientific and technical know-how from weapons development to sustainable non-weapons industries. Part of the goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons expertise to countries that don't have them, and might offer high payments for help in developing them.

Instead, in the Moscow training program, the nuclear engineers are being taught computer technology.

The deputy director of the program is Alexey Vertiporokh, a nuclear scientist who himself left Russia at one time because of what he saw as a lack of opportunity. But these days he said he is back home to stay, committed to the future and the re-training program.

Mr. Vertiporokh said an expert on nuclear weapons could use his knowledge in ways that would hurt Russia or the United States. But through this program, he said, the person would learn new skills and have opportunities to work on civilian projects. Mr. Vertiporokh said the training will reduce the Russian brain drain, and will also reduce the chances of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world.

Mr. Vertiporokh said the institute hopes to re-train a minimum of 500 Russian nuclear scientists and engineers within the next two to three years. The program already has 50 graduates. Dmitri Zavitin, 38, is among them.

Mr. Zavitin said what is called offshore programming is growing in Russia. He said it is possible for a Russian programmer to stay in Russia and work for an American company at a very good salary.

In the training program, the Russian nuclear scientists learn a core curriculum in software and programming, certified by American companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Sun. The project has been such a success that it led to the creation of Russia's largest systems integrator, known as Optima, which now employs many of the program's graduates.

If all goes according to plan, Optima will eventually become an offshore software provider for Western companies.

Dmitri Zavitin said there was a time when he too considered leaving home for the chance of a better job. But he said that may no longer be necessary. And that is exactly the message the leaders of the U.S.-Russian training partnership hope to promote among more of Russia's nuclear scientists.