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US-Russia effort to contain nuclear experts fades

A Russia-US partnership to stem Russian brain drain is set to expire Friday, barring final talks.

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At a Moscow conference in 2000 on stopping the global migration of nuclear-weapons know-how, a Russian security official revealed that Taliban envoys had tried to recruit a Russian nuclear expert.

That expert didn't go to work for the Afghan regime. But three of his colleagues did leave their institute for other nations – and Russian officials had no idea which ones, US experts say.

With the threat of nuclear terrorism looming large in a post-9/11 world, the brain drain of Russian nuclear expertise is an even more critical concern than it was six years ago, many say. Yet a unique 1998 US-Russian partnership to offer new opportunities and skills to destitute Russian nuclear specialists living in remote former-Soviet "science cities" is set to expire Friday unless last-minute diplomacy saves it.

A stronger Russian economy and growing wariness of US access to sensitive nuclear programs has dampened Moscow's enthusiasm for the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) program, as has a three-year wrangle with Washington over legal liability issues, observers say.

"It will be a great pity if this program dies, because it really had an impact around here," says Yuri Yudin, a former atomic scientist who heads the Analytical Center for Nonproliferation in the closed city of Sarov, one of several NCI-funded projects. "The objective was to create nonmilitary businesses and new jobs that could become self-sustaining, and it had considerable success. But the task is far from finished."

Others say losing the program would be another "unsettling sign" of erosion in US-Russia nuclear security cooperation.

"If we eliminate this program we will be losing a major nonproliferation agreement," says Kenneth Luongo, executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, a nuclear nonproliferation group in Washington.

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