WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is preparing an nTC initiative to ensure full employment for an estimated 2,000 nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union, including U.S.-funded jobs overseeing the destruction of Soviet atomic weapons and a multinational effort to provide jobs in civilian research institutes, officials said yesterday.
The plan, which is under discussion in a high-level interagency group, is intended to head off attempts to hire the scientists by Libya, Iran or other countries that may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons, the officials said.
Administration officials and members of Congress have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the prospect that key scientists in Russia and its neighbors, facing economic privation, might be wooed away by promises of big money -- a problem one official dubbed "loose brains."
CIA Director Robert M. Gates has repeatedly warned that the scientists could turn into "a potentially dangerous brain drain."
"We think perhaps a thousand to two thousand can actually design nuclear weapons or run a program to develop and produce biological weapons," Mr. Gates told a Senate committee earlier this week.
The West could have a serious problem if even a few top-flight scientists move to hostile countries, he said. "We know from experience that small numbers of key people count."
The administration's proposed response "has not yet jelled completely," one official said, indicating the details were still being negotiated.
But the plan will be completed "sooner rather than later," another senior official said -- perhaps in time for inclusion in President Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday.
As foreseen, the plan includes using part of a $400 million fund Congress provided for dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal to employ scientists, officials said.
Another component is a multinational consortium that could create new research posts in both the former Soviet Union and the West for talented scientists, they said.
"We want to create opportunities for these scientists and technicians: projects in place, posts at universities in the West," a senior official said. "As long as they don't go to the Libyas and the Iraqs of the world. They really don't want a brain drain, but it means coming up with programs that would employ these people.
"If you put out a pot of money and told the scientific community to come up with something useful for these people to do, there would be no shortage of ideas," he added.
Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew discussed the issue with officials in Russia and other former Soviet republics during a visit this week, aides said.
Several factors have complicated the search for a workable policy, officials said.
For one, the Russian government of President Boris N. Yeltsin has said that it intends to remain a nuclear power, although with a much smaller arsenal than before.
That means that at least some of Russia's top nuclear scientists will presumably continue to work for their Defense Ministry on weapons projects, a U.S. government analyst said. But the administration does not want to find itself inadvertently supporting nuclear research in Moscow that could help sustain such a military effort.
A second problem could arise if the administration seeks to use the $400 million fund to employ scientists who are not directly involved in dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
A third problem, officials said, is a desire to avoid programs that might rob Russia and its neighbors of their best scientific talent.