Sandia LabNews

Russian, US weapons lab directors meet

Lab Directors meeting reflects new relationship

For Sandians who cut their teeth during the Cold War, it is still, even 10 and more years later, a jarring, extraordinary image: the group photograph of the directors of the Russian and US weapons labs convened for friendly dialogue at Bishop’s Lodge north of Santa Fe.

Looking out from the photo are faces of men and women who, not much more than a decade ago, were sworn adversaries, developers and stewards of implements of war the use of which would bring utter destruction to their foes.

This northern New Mexico meeting April 13-16 was actually the second such gathering; the first was held in conjunction with the celebration of Sandia’s 50th anniversary in 1999. At that meeting, attendees were limited to lab directors and their staffs; this time, their bosses — Gen. John Gordon from DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration and Lev Ryabev, First Deputy Minister of Minatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency — were on hand, lending a policy-level viability to the directors’ discussions.

Joan Woodard, Sandia’s Executive Vice President and Deputy Director, says that many noted a distinct thawing of the atmosphere between the first meetings 10 years ago with the Russian labs and today. In those first meetings, she says, the atmosphere was described, understandably, as having a certain stiffness, a formality of expression, a perceptible sense — not of distrust — but of caution. At the meeting last month, she says, the atmosphere was more relaxed; there was more trust, and markedly less subtext of questioning each others’ motives for participating.

The fact is, Joan says, the Russian labs and the US labs share many concerns: knowledge preservation, materials control, and nonproliferation are just a few examples. And, of course, the big issue looming over all the directors’ discussions: "the new world dynamics," as Joan put it, referring to the post-9/11 geopolitical situation.

At the 1999 meeting, Joan says, the directors talked about a lot of issues, but there was no final report at that time stating that, "We will now do x, y, and z." This time around, she says, with Gordon and Ryabev participating, there was support to take tangible steps to advance lab-to-lab cooperation.

"Having Gen. Gordon and Lev Ryabev there with us made a huge difference," Joan says.

As a result of the policy chiefs’ participation, Joan says, two ideas for tangible action emerged from the meeting:

  • First, the directors agreed (working under the auspices of existing US/Russian government-to-government agreements) to sponsor two workshops on how to collaborate and cooperate on technologies to counter terrorism.
  • Second, the directors agreed to revitalize a moribund program of science collaboration among the labs. Some areas of cooperative effort under this initiative might include materials aging phenomena, high-energy physics, and other issues of concern to scientific management of nuclear stockpiles.

During the discussion, she recalls, Rady Ilkaev, director of VNIIEF (the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics), displayed a cartoon with two frames; In the first frame, two dark-suited gentlemen stand rather stiffly apart, not cozy, but not overtly hostile. The caption says, "Not enemies." In the second frame, the two are closer together, smiling, and appear more relaxed in each others’ company. The caption: "Partners?" With a question mark.

Ilkaev, Joan says, asked the rhetorical question: "Where are we in this picture? We are ‘not enemies.’ But are we yet ‘partners?'"

"That is the very issue our governments are trying to sort through," Joan says. And meetings such as the Bishop’s Lodge gathering, she says, position the national laboratories in both countries to follow their governments’ leads as the nature of the relationship evolves. between US, Russia