By MARGARET COKER

MOSCOW, Russia, Oct. 19, 2000 (The Atlanta Constitution) — Ten years ago, 15 Russians and Americans gathering in a dimly-lit classroom in this storied capital might have been jailed if they were seen talking together. But these days, they’re being pushed to exchange secrets.

The topic arousing hot debate last week was nuclear safety. And the participants were managers of Russian nuclear facilities and Igor Khripunov, a University of Georgia political science professor, and his assistant, Mike Beck.

The two men traveled together to Moscow under a year-old program run by the university’s Center for International Trade and Security. The project is aimed at keeping Russia’s nuclear stockpiles out of the hands of terrorists and “rogue” nations.

“The collapse of the centralized Soviet state in the early 1990s brought home the frightening reality of ‘loose nukes,’ ” said Gary Bertsch, director of the center. “To respond to this new threat, our UGA center developed a long-term program to promote nuclear security in Russia and in other hot spots around the world. There is critical UGA student and faculty involvement in all aspects of the program.”

“We’re trying to secure dangerous materials . . . as well as understand the human dimension,” explained Khripunov, a soft-spoken Russian emigre and the center’s associate director. “We have to understand how (Russian nuclear scientists) live and work.”

Russia has 10 secret nuclear sites where Soviet-era atomic research and weapons labs were located. In addition, the country has 80 to 90 other nuclear labs and some 25 nuclear power plants.

With Russia’s economy on the skids, the nearly 1 million nuclear scientists who work at these facilities earn an average of $100 a month, barely covering the cost of food.

The possibility that these scientists will sell nuclear material illicitly to help their families survive has become the greatest national security threat from Russia, U.S. officials say. Since 1991, Russian officials have documented 21 attempts to steal nuclear materials.

“A drawback of having a democratic society is that it’s difficult to control movement,” Khripunov said. “The Soviet system was designed to protect nuclear materials from threats from the outside. Now, the threat is from the inside.”

The U.S. government spends about $350 million each year at Russia’s nuclear sites to upgrade safety and physical protection of fuel and other material that could be used in bombs. These programs have met with mixed success, however. U.S. authorities complain they don’t receive the access needed to monitor progress, and they question Russian accounting of the funds.

The UGA program, which is funded by private groups and a $125,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, differs from other government-run safety programs. The CITS seminars aim to break down lingering Cold War stereotypes that keep Russians wary of Americans.

Building trust starts with Khripunov himself. A former diplomat and translator, he left his job at the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1991 to pursue an independent life in the United States. Still, he retains an immediate sense of what life is like in Russia. Through his family members, who still live in Moscow, he understands the insecurities his compatriots face.

Khripunov says that despite U.S. fears, there have been few attempts by Russians to steal nuclear materials because of the heightened sense of responsibility among nuclear professionals that was instilled by the Soviet system.

“These people were always considered special. They were responsible for the Soviet Union becoming a superpower. They know better than most the responsibility” needed to safeguard such dangerous materials, he said. “We start working with them and don’t treat them like robbers. They appreciate that.”

Khripunov and other UGA personnel travel to Moscow five times each year to conduct their seminars, targeted at midlevel managers, marketing specialists and scientists working at Russian nuclear plants. The program also allows for young Russian professionals to travel to the United States. In previous visits, Russians have toured UGA as well the Savannah River nuclear facility near Aiken, S.C.

With more than 100 Russian alumni from the program already, Khripunov is now set to expand his efforts by establishing a Russian nuclear security advisory group in association with the Department of Energy.

For more information, visit the Center for International Trade and Security: www.uga.edu/~cits.

Copyright 2000 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution