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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Nonproliferation in an evolving world

Peace of mind: former weapons scientists work for nonproliferation

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russian weapons scientists frequently found themselves with little work, no pay for the work they were doing and crumbling facilities. Russian and U.S. government officials were concerned that former weapons scientists may be tempted to go to work for countries with active nuclear programs, so they worked together to come up with a way to reduce that incentive.

The United States began funding two programs aimed at putting Russian nuclear, biological and chemical weapons scientists and nuclear cities—cities previously devoted to developing nuclear weapons—to work for nonproliferation.

The Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) and the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, work in nontraditional ways to reduce the weapons capabilities of newly independent states and to redirect former weapons scientists into new careers. These two programs make up the Russian Transition Initiatives.

IPP was created in 1994 to reduce the threat of "brain drain"—the migration of educated Russian workers to jobs in other countries—by linking a Russian weapons facility with a DOE national laboratory and U.S. industry partner. Through the program, over 60 corporations, including The Boeing Company and Motorola, now provide commercial input into research carried out in Russia by highly skilled scientists. The national laboratory partner, like Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, acts to bridge the interests between the business and scientific partners and provides project management.

"The collaboration teaches the Russians how to make science applicable to a business world," said Genia Rainina, a PNNL scientist and Russian national. "They have to use creativity and learn the business aspects of science to stay in business."

Rainina, along with DOE, PNNL and industry partners, spent many months convincing Russian scientists to forge a partnership with New Horizons Diagnostics. NHD, a Maryland research company, makes luminometers to detect the light emitted from luciferase, also called the "firefly" enzyme. Luciferase glows in the presence of bacteria and is used to detect contaminated water and food. NHD needed a new luciferase provider and with Rainina's assistance, scientists at the University of Moscow created a stable, viable luciferase enzyme that NHD uses with its luminometer. (See sidebar.)

The collaboration has spawned a new company in Russia—Lumteck—for marketing and selling NHD luminometers to be used with the Russian luciferase enzyme. "The success of this partnership in creating a self-sustaining business is unusual," said PNNL's Ron Nesse, who works closely with the NCI and IPP programs. "But due to the outstanding efforts of New Horizons and the scientists involved, it turnedout very well for the IPP program and for the participants."

The Nuclear Cities Initiative also works to support DOE's nonproliferation efforts, diversifying the local economies near Russia's closed cities and providing alternative employment for the cities' nuclear scientists. PNNL is supporting NCI's mission by developing local infrastructure through its International Development Centers located in Zheleznogorsk and Snezhinsk. These centers provide the cities with training and workshop space, Internet availability, and entrepreneur assistance, and prepare city officials and facilities to transition from weapons to commercial activities. PNNL staff members were instrumental in setting up these centers and as board members.

The centers built by NCI have become hubs of social and commercial activity in the former closed cities. Closed Russian cities are not unlike American nuclear sites from the 1940s, such as the facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Hanford, Wash. PNNL, which is currently partnered with three former closed Russian cities, "brings to NCI its experience with turning a similar city focused on defense into an economically diverse community," said Nesse. PNNL is located in the former nuclear city of Richland, Wash.

Firefly enzyme lights up microbe detection

Luciferase, the "firefly" enzyme that glows in the presence of bacteria, may soon play a big role in making food and water safer worldwide. New Horizons Diagnostics, a Maryland research company, is working with Russian scientists to make a luciferase tester that will be faster and more efficient for dairy farmers and food processors. Standard microbiological methods can take 24-72 hours to detect the presence of harmful bacteria in cows milk. NHD and Russian scientists hope to cut that time down to four hours so that farmers can tell whether an individual cow is sick or if just its milk is contaminated.

A faster test would help farmers worldwide avoid contaminating large batches of milk, and could stop further spread of bacteria among cows that are known to be sick.

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