The train rolls slowly past a double barbed wire fence and arrives inside a citadel of secrecy, Arzamas-16, a closed nuclear city long omitted from official maps and the birthplace of the Soviet atomic bomb.
Amid pines and birches 249 miles east of Moscow, the city has returned to its prerevolutionary name, Sarov, but it remains at the center of a quandary for Russia and the world about the future of nuclear arms and those who build them. One of 10 closed cities in the Russian atomic weapons archipelago, Arzamas-16 is home to the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics, the oldest and most prominent of Russia's two nuclear weapons design laboratories, and Avangard, a warhead assembly and disassembly plant that is due to be phased out in the next few years.
Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the first Soviet atomic test, on Aug. 29, 1949, Soviet nuclear weapons designers gathered here for a celebration. They were surrounded by history. Tucked in a corner of the city is the house where Andrei Sakharov lived while developing the hydrogen bomb. Nearby is the house of Yuri Khariton, the founder of Arzamas-16 and a Soviet weapons pioneer. While the city is still closed to foreigners, some Western and Russian journalists were invited to the commemoration.
As the aging veterans rose to accept their awards, as they recounted the urgency and fears of their early drive to match the U.S. atomic bomb, as they debated the role of espionage in gaining information for their design, Russian nuclear scientists of today listened with more than a few doubts about their own future.
In the Soviet Union's heavily militarized economy, atomic scientists were nurtured and coddled. At the same time, they were heavily guarded by a police state that prohibited most of them from ever meeting foreigners. Now, nearly eight years after the Soviet collapse, their current counterparts are in regular contact with the outside world, and in many ways they are being thrown a lifeline from the West.
But Russian scientists are still coming to terms with a country that can no longer support such a vast nuclear weapons complex. The years-long drive to convert from defense to civilian work is lagging. Questions persist about the danger that some scientists might take their knowledge to politically radical states hungry for nuclear potential -- including Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Moreover, nuclear scientists here face a paradox. Russia's economic decline has devastated its conventional, or nonnuclear forces. It does not possess the kind of high-precision weapons used by NATO during the Kosovo war, so Russia's military and political leadership has concluded it must rely, at least for the foreseeable future, on the nuclear shield -- no matter how tattered and aging. This includes not only continent-spanning, nuclear-armed missiles, but also thousands of short-range tactical nuclear weapons.
Although details remain secret, there appears to be a drive among some weapons designers to persuade Russia's leadership to build a new generation of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons for use on a battlefield, which could be Russia's answer to its lack of high-precision conventional weapons. President Boris Yeltsin chaired a meeting of the Kremlin security council in April that discussed the issue, but what was decided, if anything, has not been made public.
A leading voice for building such new weapons has been Viktor Mikhailov, the hawkish former minister of atomic energy and now first deputy minister and chairman of the Science Council. In the text of remarks for the commemoration here, Mikhailov said that a "new generation" of low-yield nuclear weapons "will have particular significance for the world." He said there should be no doubt that "this weapon can really be used in case of any large-scale military conflict."
In a brief interview, Mikhailov added: "Nuclear weapons are devaluing any conventional weapons, including the weapons that were used in Yugoslavia, the new ones. Nuclear weapons are much more powerful, a deciding factor thousands of times higher than any other. I am not saying millions of times, but thousands of times." When asked if Russia is developing such weapons, he was evasive, saying that scientists here "have their hand on the pulse."
But other leaders of the nuclear weapons program said that a new generation of tactical nuclear warheads was not on the horizon. "It is not a key goal for Russia right now," said Vladimir Rogachev, deputy director of the Nuclear Center for International Relations.
Radi Ilkayev, the director, also suggested that it would be difficult in current financial circumstances to devote money to new weapons design. In response to a question, he noted that nuclear weapons testing is now banned. "That is why these works, even if they could be conducted in the calculation phase, their practical realization and putting them on duty will be complicated and impossible, because there is no nuclear testing," he said.
Ilkayev added, however, that maintaining tactical nuclear weapons is an important part of Russia's nuclear deterrent. "Tactical nuclear weapons -- operative tactical nuclear weapons -- are required for Russia. Our borders are enormous. Tactical nuclear weapons should not be seen as a field weapon, but as a weapon of deterrence of major international conflicts," he said, adding that rather than developing new warheads, the laboratories are focusing on how to extend the service life of those already deployed.
Many Russian scientists are frustrated by the nuclear test ban that Russia and the United States are observing without having ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But the top officials here insisted they would not pressure the government to break the treaty. "We aren't seriously trying to push our government to start this testing. We don't want to start if other countries will follow the same" path, said Rogachev.
The future of Arzamas-16 and other Russian nuclear facilities is clouded by Russia's continuing economic slide. The ruble crash last year left many scientists even worse off financially than before and potentially more vulnerable to recruitment by other countries seeking weapons technology. Although Arzamas-16 has paid some overdue wages, the delays persist, and in recent years there have been strikes and protests by nuclear workers. The parent Ministry of Atomic Energy also has been hard-hit by financial problems and is looking to the export of civilian nuclear power technology for cash.
Moreover, the government can no longer afford such a large nuclear weapons design complex, which includes a second laboratory, Chelyabinsk-70, now known as Snezhinsk. In 1998, a plan was adopted to slash the number of defense workers in all the closed cities from 75,000 to 40,000 by the year 2005. At the nuclear design center here, there are currently about 13,000 workers, including 7,000 scientists, about half the levels of the mid-1980s.
The struggle to convert this once prestigious city of 75,000 to commercial and civilian work has faced mammoth obstacles. Many weapons scientists were wary, and viable projects have been difficult to turn into commercial success.
Some progress is evident. Ilkayev said about one-quarter of the nuclear center's funding now comes from outside the government, including a host of Western grants and programs. There are also low-tech conversion projects, for production of such things as artificial diamonds, oil and gas equipment and church bells. The cities of Sarov and Snezhinsk also received controversial special federal tax status as "offshore" zones in an attempt to lure business. Recently, a Russian geography outfit took an unprecedented step -- it made a map for the first time showing this once invisible city.
The tense competition of the Cold War has not entirely disappeared; foreign spies are still pursued here. Lt. Gen. Yuri Zevakin, a top foreign intelligence official, said: "I can tell you clearly that at the end of the Cold War -- let's not speak about who won it -- the military intelligence efforts intensified."
What worries Western leaders most is the prospect of nuclear scientists selling their know-how. A host of programs are now aimed at trying to keep them engaged in civilian work. The International Center for Science and Technology, a joint effort of the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia, has put Arzamas-16 at the top of its list of facilities receiving grants. By some estimates, the program has reached 60 percent of the 2,000 scientists at the core of the Russian nuclear program.
But there are also many unknowns about thousands more scientists outside the core group in other branches of military and civilian nuclear energy. "I can't guarantee that they will not travel to some other places," said Rogachev, "but right now the situation is quiet."