It was a cold autumn in Russia in 1998. The country had recently defaulted on its debts and devalued the ruble, millions of bank depositors lost their savings, and the banks closed their doors. The economic crisis had also created a sense of uncertainty about nuclear security. Erik Engling, who had been working on the problem of loose fissile material for several years for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, was attempting to visit as many of the Russian institutes with uranium as he possibly could that fall.
One day in early November, he arrived at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, spread over 89 acres on a beautiful old estate in Moscow. The institute was one of the oldest in the Soviet Union's archipelago of nuclear research facilities. A large amount of weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent, was stored there inside in aluminum-clad canisters 6 inches long, which had been used for a heavy-water research reactor and physics experiments.
Earlier in the year, the United States had completed installation of new equipment at the institute to monitor and protect the uranium. The equipment was just one part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the U.S. government to secure the uranium and plutonium in Russia after the Soviet Union's collapse. On a day of bone-chilling cold, fighting exhaustion from weeks of work, Engling came face to face with a crisis the U.S. government had not expected: The guards had walked away from their posts. The new monitoring equipment was still there, but there was no one to operate it. "They're all gone; they've left; they've quit," Engling told me. "They haven't been paid, and they're not gonna get paid, and everyone knows they're not gonna get paid."
Looking around, Engling counted 32 people who were essential to keeping the facility operating and the uranium secure, including 12 guards.
He knew that it was foolish to put money in a bank account to pay them -- given the condition of the banks, it would disappear overnight. At midafternoon, he gathered several institute officials in the deputy director's office. "I was just desperate," he recalled.
Engling pulled $3,000 in cash out of his pocket, money he had been given for per-diem expenses on his trip. He asked the Russians: If he paid everyone $50 a month, would the guards remain on duty for three months until he could figure out something else? He gave the wad of cash to the deputy director, whom he trusted. Please, he implored all of them, remain on duty for three months. Can you promise me the guards will be back?
After the visit, Engling sent an urgent message to the Energy Department in Washington. Previously, the U.S. government had focused on protecting the uranium with monitoring equipment, but now, he warned, there was a whole new problem looming: a "human catastrophe." The guard forces at the institutes were paralyzed, with wages unpaid for two to four months, absenteeism, and lack of winter clothing, heat, and food.
"TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE," he wrote, all in capital letters to underscore the urgency.