WASHINGTON -- When the Soviet Union throws open its borders to would-be emigres this January, thousands of scientists who design and build nuclear weapons will face a decision that has government officials biting their nails from here to Moscow.
It is the nightmare prospect of Soviet "nuclear mercenaries" ending up anywhere from Iran to North Korea to Libya.
"After January, all the doors are open, and it is like the Wild West," said one Soviet official tracking the issue. "Some of these people, they have no scruples at all. They won't give a damn if it is Saddam Hussein or anyone else [who hires them], as long as there is work."
Such a possibility is realistic, he and other authorities say, because there is so little incentive for the Soviet scientists to stay.
Those who do can expect a bleak winter of unemployment brought on by 40 percent budget cuts in the Soviet nuclear program, or, if they're lucky, continued employment at low wages that for many are less than a bus driver makes. And even the higher-paid scientists will be trapped in the same crumbling economy, with its chronic shortages and ever-lengthening bread lines.
Those who leave, on the other hand, might be able to name their price in any of several places where governments want nuclear weapons expertise.
Anyone doubting that a few imported scientists can make much of an impact need only look back to 1945, when the United States plucked rocket scientist Werner von Braun from the ashes of Nazi Germany to jump start U.S. missile research and the space program.
That kind of potential impact causes officials to view the nuclear mercenary issue as a far greater danger than the already publicized fear that a Soviet nuclear weapon might fall into the wrong hands amid the chaos of political disintegration.
"You have scientists whose raison d'etre disappeared at the end of the Cold War," said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Russian and Soviet Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "They are ripe for offers from abroad."
Though estimates vary, authorities and government analysts say there are probably from 3,000 to 5,000 scientists with knowledge of such vital facets of nuclear arms production as uranium enrichment -- generally the most difficult step in building a weapon -- or bomb design.
Mr. Potter, who led a workshop of U.S. authorities on such issues last month in Moscow, said Soviet officials told him that "Soviet nuclear scientists have been approached by foreign governments for employment."
Apart from the economic incentives, Mr. Potter cites "the ideological, religious, ethnic, and historical ties" to Middle Eastern countries of some of the scientists in some of the southern Soviet republics. He also warned that there are far more people to worry about than the 3,000-5,000 at the heart of the nuclear weapons program.
"On top of that you have all of the people who have served in the Soviet armed forces in one capacity or another and have worked around or otherwise used nuclear weapons in their daily routines," Mr. Potter said.
"Then you have the people in the nuclear power sector who, while they may not be working with nuclear weapons, per se, have skills which would be of use to a potential proliferant."
In addition, he said, there are about 100,000 Soviet scientists with high enough security clearances to have obtained information that could be helpful to a fledgling weapons program.
To keep track of at least some of those people, U.S. intelligence services are stepping up efforts "in terms of developing analytical capabilities and increased resources," one U.S. official said. And keeping tabs on the mercenary issue will be one of the first chores of the CIA's new Non-Proliferation Center that opened in September.
But authorities here and in Moscow say that not even the Soviet government seems to have a firm handle on who knows what, much less the ability to keep track of the scientists if they start leaving in January. Nor is anyone likely to suggest trying to keep scientists from leaving.
That's especially true for the United States, which has long made a human rights issue out of restrictive Soviet emigration policies. One of the most frequently cited examples has been Andrei D. Sakharov, the nuclear weapons designer-turned-dissident who was repeatedly denied permission to leave the country until 1989, the final year of his life.
So, U.S. officials are trying to think of other ways to make the scientists stay put, such as helping to pay for research to determine the best way to disarm Soviet nuclear weapons.
Thousands would be dismantled under the recent arms treaty agreement, and other countries might keep the scientists employed doing this by picking up the tab, one official said. "At the policy level, there is a sense of urgency," he said. "You need to keep these people in the country or at least find some safe avenues."
Oleg Bukharin, a Soviet physicist who has joined efforts to alert ,, his countrymen to such issues, said that the best way to keep scientists happy would be "by offering them a good job at a good salary," though he admitted that that will be difficult. Mr. Bukharin, who has spoken to colleagues who specialize in nuclear physics, said, "They seem to be very pessimistic, and they don't see any solution."
"It is difficult to say what they will do," said Andrei Zagorski, vice director of the center for international studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "It might happen that FTC there are some that will accept those kinds of [outside] offers."
Mr. Zagorski joined Mr. Bukharin and a handful of other Soviet citizens last week in a return visit to the Washington area to meet with members of the U.S. group led by Mr. Potter. Mr. Zagorski is heading the nascent Association for Non-Proliferation his country.
But even the scientists who stay home could become part of the nuclear proliferation problem, authorities say, if they end up working for a burgeoning wave of new companies that are trying to generate much-needed cash by marketing "peaceful nuclear explosions" and other arms-related technology to the world at large.
The early leader in this group is the International Chetek Corp., an 11-month-old company created by nuclear scientists who were about to be laid off from the Arzamas-16 nuclear weapon design center. With a boost of 200 million rubles from the Soviet Ministry of Atomic Power and Industry, Chetek has begun
touting its willingness to blow up hazardous waste with underground nuclear explosions and has already hired a Canadian firm, PHD International Trading Inc. of Montreal, as its international sales agent.
Danny Wolfson, PHD's Chetek representative, said he has received about 40 inquiries from potential customers in Canada and the United States during the past two months, including one U.S. state that he would not identify.
That kind of interest alarms Tariq Rauf, senior associate of the Canadian Center for Arms Control and Disarmament, in Ottawa. "This is the first time anyone involved with nuclear weapons production has come on the market to offer their technology and services to anyone who is interested," Mr. Rauf said. He said this only makes it more likely that some customer will end up acquiring the technology. "They [at Chetek] have not ruled out taking the PNEs [peaceful nuclear explosions] to other countries and using them on foreign soil."
"Totally impossible," Mr. Wolfson responded. "No nuclear device any shape, matter or form will ever leave the U.S.S.R., under any circumstances." The waste will be shipped to the U.S.S.R. for destruction, he said.
Other new Soviet companies getting in on the nuclear business are Vremya, which Mr. Rauf said is marketing nuclear materials and equipment, and the uranium-marketer Tenex, a recently privatized enterprise.
Making these companies more worrisome, Mr. Potter said, is that Soviet controls on exporting such products are rapidly being relaxed, as oversight shifts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations.
"And the main mandate of the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations is to bring in hard currency," he said. "Basically, everything is for sale."