Sarah Scott Interview

Lab-to-Lab: US-Russian Lab-to-Lab Collaboration Story [Archived]

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Sara Scott in conversation with Sig Hecker, Alla Kassianova, and Paul White

February 2, 2017, Los Alamos
SS: Sara Scott; SH: Sig Hecker; PW: Paul White; AK: Alla Kassianova

AK: Sara, thank you for meeting with us today. To start, how did you become involved with the Russian MPC&A program? What was your background at the time?

SS: You know, it was a big transition for me. I came to Los Alamos National Laboratory as an inorganic chemist doing materials research and development. I then joined the analytical chemistry group, in the trace analysis team, and was performing weapons-related, environmental, and other analytical work for the Lab, a wide variety of challenges. I got to the point where I was ready to move on and do something different. I knew someone that I had worked with, that had gone over to what was then the Safeguard Systems group. I spoke with them about what they were working on, the kinds of expertise they needed, and I ended up taking a job over there.

It was the early to mid 1990s – 1994 or 1995, a time when nuclear smuggling started getting people’s attention. There were a number of different seizures of different kinds of nuclear and nuclear-related materials. And in the context of the political changes underway at the time this was a disturbing situation. One of my early contributions was development of an analytical network that could be used to help identify and trace intercepted nuclear materials. At first this focused on using a broad array of LANL and SNL (Sandia National Laboratories) capabilities, but ultimately it became part of a national, and then international effort. As I started working on more and more projects in this area I became really interested in the bigger picture of nuclear nonproliferation, and I liked it. It felt good, it felt important, it felt like something that needed to be done, and it was interesting and challenging, technically challenging.

So, at some point Ron Augustson called me over to chat with him – he was leading the MPC&A program at Los Alamos at that time. He said that they had just added new Russian facilities to the program, six sites, and one of them was Mining and Chemical Combine, Krasnoyarsk-26. He asked – would I be interested in working on a program like that? He is of course, just a great person – very committed and inspirational, and he was especially excited talking to me about what the MPC&A program did and this particular site. So I said, “Yes. Sounds awesome. I’d love to work on that.” For the first site visit, I think it was June 1996, Mark Mullen led the team. And off I went. It was the next chapter in getting more involved in nonproliferation work and international work. Then, after that initial meeting – or, I can’t remember, perhaps even before that – Mark asked, “Would you lead this team?” And so…

SH: So Mark Mullen asked you, correct?

SS: Yes, Mark Mullen, or some combination of Mark and Ron Augustson. It was a great opportunity, and I was really excited to be a part of this work. I loved the enthusiasm, the dedication, the seriousness of folks like Ron and Mark. But I also really liked the excitement of this kind of a challenge. As I talked to Ron about initial steps – learning as much about the site, the specific issues, and technical options as you could ahead of time there was other background work that needed to be done. Things like: “How the heck are we going to get out there?” It was not trivial. It wasn’t a big tourist destination, as you might imagine. So, at one point, we wondered “Do we have to charter a plane?” In the end, we found a way that included flying Air Krasnoyarsk out of Moscow. But, as Ron said when we were chatting about some of the specific issues we’d have to face as we embarked on this new program, even the logistical parts, “It’s an adventure.” And I thought, “Yes it is. It’s an adventure.” Besides being an important and challenging program to work on, it was an adventure.

AK: What kind of commitment was required to be on the program? Was it part of your responsibilities here? Or it’s something that you take over from other responsibilities?

SS: At that time, I believe I still continued to work on some other nonproliferation projects or programs, for example, initiatives to counter nuclear smuggling and teaching nondestructive assay at the safeguards training courses that LANL provided to IAEA inspectors and other projects. It was a significant part of my time once we got started. But there were other things I did as well, at some lower level.

AK: And you said that there was this excitement on the American part. But when you had a chance to meet the Russian counterparts, did it match this excitement? What were your first encounters there with the Russian part of the effort?

SS: Yes, it was interesting. I remember going there and, of course it was a new MPC&A site, far away from the other sites. And as we got to know the site and talk with the people there, they said, “Well, you know, we’re kind of out here by ourselves.” Obviously, they communicated and worked with the rest of their system, but to me they had a feeling of being far away from a lot of things, and that part of their identity came out on our first visit. When we got there, we met with the director and some of his staff to start talking about the program. And while my understanding was that the site was not hearing about this program for the first time, it was necessary to go through this overview of the program to promote an understanding of how we envisioned it being implemented and executed, how we saw this effort being different from other programs that they had worked on in the past.

So, there was definitely a need to just step back from meeting the leaders and staff at the site and then jumping right in to initiating the specific work activities of the effort. It’s something I learned in working on this program. In addition to the language barrier, there were cultural, institutional and other differences to be addressed in working with the Russians on this topic. For example, Americans, and probably my own personality more than a little bit, tend to have a “let’s go” attitude in working on projects – wanting to start up and show results quickly – and in this case there really needed to be some fundamental and overview discussions and time for what we’d discussed to be considered. By the time we left – we were there for about three days – we had gone through much of this basic information, we had laid out how we approached the contracting part of the work, provided an overview of some of the basic technical areas that we felt would likely be relevant to the program for this facility, and spent some time just getting to know each other – who we were, who they were. We learned about their site, but that was also a part of the lesson that there are differences in how we approach things; the way they described the site and our understanding of it continued to evolve with every site visit and meeting. I remember starting to think about a rule of three in working on this program. First, we would chart out together how we saw the overall effort proceeding and the most important next-steps. Then we would discuss it again, perhaps in a little bit more detail. By the third time we discussed the project, everyone was more cemented – in terms of us understanding them and them understanding us. And it was important to anticipate and accept that this was going to be necessary and the way things were going to get done.

AK: Did you have a specific time frame for this project? I mean, was it open-ended, or did you have to finish by some date?

SS: Going in the idea was that the MPC&A enhancements would be done in five years. It obviously didn’t happen, but that was the initial thinking in terms of how long the work at these sites should take. There was a sense that you wanted to get in and get it done – and also this sense that this was urgent. This wasn’t something you wanted to not get done as soon as you could. I mean, there was always that sense of urgency.

AK: So Krasnoyarsk-26 was your first site in Russia?

SS: Yes.

AK: And you worked through this project with it, and then you started to go to other places as well?

SS: No, I ended up taking a job as the Nonproliferation and the Arms Control Program Manager after about, I think, three years of working on the MPC&A program at this site. And at that point, they were saying, “Oh, could you stay, could you stay?” And I tried that for a while, but those jobs were to big to try to do together.

AK: So Krasnoyarsk was…

SS: That was really the one site I worked with. I did go on to work on a number of other Russian cooperative initiatives later in my career, but not as a part of the MPC&A program. For example, I eventually performed some of the very early work on what ultimately became the Second Line of Defense program, working with the folks at DOE headquarters – and people here at the Lab and other Labs – to think about what an initiative that addressed the next layer of protecting nuclear material would look like. I feel like we came up with some good ideas. As I recall, this new initiative was initially being worked from NA-24 and then it went to Trishia Dedick’s office in NA-43. At the very beginning, the vision of this program was completely different from what it turned out to be. It an exciting time to be working on this type of program and to have the opportunity to contribute to how it was being formulated. The Fissile Materials Transparency Test Demonstration was another major effort that the Lab and I, at that time as a Program Manager for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Arms Control were involved in. Later in my career I was asked by DOE, in this case the Office of Nuclear Energy, to help implement nuclear energy research and development cooperation with Russia. I likely haven’t listed all of the Russian cooperative programs I worked on but there were a number of them. Later in my career, I also contributed to a number broader international initiatives. And so, my initial experience on the MPC&A program provided a very helpful base for those future contributions.

AK: So that was your first initiation, in a way.

SS: Exactly.

AK: This rule of three, is it how it worked for you? So you went there, how many times altogether?

SS: It’s more of how I realized that work generally proceeded in the MPC&A interactions, and then later in other international initiatives, rather than a rule of exactly how you plan to work. We would go there and, especially the first time a program, project, or specific activity was discussed, the discussion started as – here are some ideas on how we might plan the approach and the priorities and the strategies – and then with subsequent discussion evolved to something that would enable design of a specific system or facility.

AK: So that was the first time?

SS: Yes, so for example, they’re telling us about the facility, since clearly it was very important to have the overall picture before you can proceed to develop priorities and a strategy. And during the first visit, we learned as much as we could but it was very light, of course, in terms of details because they just didn’t want to, or couldn’t, give out a lot of information. They considered very many of the details sensitive at the least and in some cases classified. Before this interview, I went back and looked at some of my notes and our first picture of the facility was a circle with a reactor plant, a radiochemical processing plant, and plutonium oxide storage shown as squares in the circle. That’s what initially we had to work with and we needed to figure out what was most important to address first and what kind of technologies we would propose to deploy accomplish that. And so we would have these types of discussions and although we would get to the point where we pretty much had at least a high-level approach laid out, the way it worked was that you’d get back together again the next day and review where were you the previous day and find out a little more to help refine the path forward. Or they’d understand a little bit more of our perspective and that would help development of a strategy. And I think as the program progressed, we all got better at understanding each other – us about their facility and their constraints and their terminology, and them with respect to how we approached material protection, available technology options, and even how we managed projects. So, from our perspective, each time we met it got easier to communicate, understand and focus on how to get needed improvements implemented. But certainly, there were always times when we felt like we had to revisit aspects of our joint work. [to Paul White] You felt that same way, right?

PW: Definitely.

SS: Yes, so it wasn’t that we had to make three trips to the site to make progress but through the course of a visit, or even maybe during the interim conference calls, there were times when you felt the need to take the time to say, “ok, go back, let’s just check and make sure everybody’s on the same page…”

AK: Then what happened as this progressed? Did this dynamic change and the interaction change?

SS: Definitely. I feel that the people working on the program got to know each other. They were able to better understand each other, how they worked. I think we were very lucky in that my counterpart was also a very energetic person that was very committed to this work.

AK: The Russian counterpart?

SS: Yes. That was Vasily Zhidkov at the time I was working on the program, he ultimately became the director of the Mining and Chemical Combine, but at that time he was the deputy chief engineer or something, can’t remember his exact title. He took this initiative seriously and wanted to get things done; he had the same kind of interest in making progress that I did: let’s line it up, let’s get going. And so from my perspective I think it was a good fit.

AK: Was it an intensive relationship? How often did you speak; did you do things together?

SS: We would go there at least a couple times a year. Sometimes it might have been more often. We also had fairly frequent conference calls. And sometimes they would come to the U.S. for technical meetings or training. Fortunately, as a part of the programmatic support, we had excellent interpreters. I’d especially like to be sure to say how lucky we were to have Nellie Schachowskoj as part of the LANL team, she was such an important part of our efforts, from interpretation support for phone calls at all hours of the day and night to helping with a deeper understanding of some of cultural and institutional aspects of working with Russia. So there were multiple ways to interact and this was important because as for all projects, if you didn’t keep up on the communication and focus things could get quiet – that goes for both the U.S. and Russian aspects of the efforts – and it was necessary to ask “ok, is it a hang up on our side? On their side?” And this cut across many aspects of the program.

In addition to the interpersonal piece and the technical piece, there was the whole business systems piece that was a part of what we needed to address. This at times, was one of the more challenging aspects of our cooperative efforts, in part just because how we did business, contracting, and project management was so different. Initially, getting to the point where we understood how to complete contracts with them and they understood how our contracts worked was a real challenge even though we had experienced folks in that area as a part of our team. Timelines, deliverables, funding, that’s the way we were used to conducting projects, rather than the more open-ended “get this done and here’s some money” that seemed to be their mode of operation at that time (certainly we have had that type of approach in our country for certain programs as well). So clearly, we had to address those kinds of differences as we went forward. And there were all kinds of related issues that came up: export control, access issues for example, that came up on the U.S. side that we had to address. Of course, also to continue making progress at the site. But in spite of all of that we kept focused and worked through what we needed to and got to know each other and how we liked to get things done. It got to the point where they could kid you, and say for example, ok “here’s Sara, so let’s sit down and get going.” And you, you understand their perspective better as you proceed as well.

AK: Like a normal working relationship?

SS: Yes, I would say it worked pretty well. Obviously, there were always security concerns on their part, concerns about how much information we could get to help us decide what and how to do what needed to be done. It was important to understand. For example, they were always very concerned about implementing NDA [non-destructive analysis] systems. They didn’t want to, or more accurately were not allowed to, tell us the isotopics of their materials. So there were those types of challenges that could make determining the most appropriate approach harder, but I think, overall, most of the people on the team learned to work with each other. You know probably the only frustration they, and we, would have, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault – just the nature of it, is that we wanted to go faster and get our priorities completed more quickly. We all wanted to get important upgrades identified, implemented, tested, and to make and demonstrate progress.

AK: Were you the only woman on the U.S. team?

SS: I was.

AK: And the Russians, did they have any female counterparts?

SS: They did. They had a couple. There was one, Lilya Shatova, that seemed to work as – a chief of staff is what I would have called her – she was a right-hand person to Vasily Zhidkov. And she was very helpful both in terms of communication and how to work through challenges to help efficiently keep things moving. There was another woman at one time that worked on some of the computerized accounting systems. And then, a number of the interpreters were women.

AK: They were their interpreters, or did you bring your own?

SS: We brought some as well. Usually we brought at least two or three for a week depending on the overall size of the team and number of technical side discussions we’d be conducting for that particular visit.

AK: So, in this cultural getting to know each other and getting to an into a workable relationship with each other, do you remember if there was anything that you learned that was particularly helpful to you, that was eye-opening, that seemed strange or different?

SS: Well I mentioned it before, this issue of – and I think it’s a good thing just generally in life to have learned. I’ve used it ever since in every aspect of my interactions with others – taking a minute, taking a breath, making sure that you take a moment to find out how everybody is, getting introduced to everyone, just briefly go over what you’re thinking you want to accomplish in a low-key way before just launching into a meeting or a technical session or whatever. For me as a person, that was a useful thing to always keep in mind, just to always take that time. They very much wanted to develop some level of personal relationship. I don’t mean that you’re best friends or something – but they would eat meals with us in the evening, they took us on camping trips during some of our visits. We did karaoke at night after dinner. Anyway, there were, genuine people on both sides in terms of just appreciating the person that each of us was in some way.

I had my daughter, my youngest daughter, in 1998 – and so that was an interesting experience, being not just a woman team leader but a quite large woman team leader for this program at that point. And, you know, they love kids. I remember during one of their visits to the Lab here for some training we took them to Bandelier for an after work outing. I had my daughter in her little backpack as we were hiking around the ruins, and she just got so much attention. They were all saying, “Oh, I’ll carry her, I’ll carry her.” There was a level of genuine personal connection at some level. They brought me these little woven baby shoes from the Siberian area for her; they were cute and I really appreciated the thoughtfulness. Anyway, that part of the cooperation was interesting and valuable as well. There were also cultural aspects that were hard. There was one person on our team that was vocal about his anger regarding how the site had been built – slave labor was used as part of the workforce and obviously there were deaths and other atrocities that occurred as a result of that. And you could tell this gave a strong negative aspect to his outlook on the site. Not necessarily to the people we were working with, I don’t think this was an interpersonal issue. But he didn’t stay on the team too long and I don’t know if this played a role in that. But it’s understandable – it was not a great chapter in history in terms of how the site and other parts of the complex got built.

SH: How many people did you have on your team? And from how many Labs?

SS: I would say there were probably about six to eight-ish as a core part of the team, others would be added to help out on a specific technical activity at times as needed. We’d usually have someone from Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge, LANL, Brookhaven, and sometimes PNNL. But for example, if we were really focusing on implementing an aspect of the physical protection system, or the computerized accounting system, for a specific visit or period of time, we might add more people to the team to help out.

SH: Argonne National Lab at all?

SS: I’m trying to think whether or not we had an Argonne person. I don’t recall that we did – but this was almost twenty years ago.

SH: So was it more difficult managing those U.S. Labs than during the interaction with the Russians?

SS: I suppose sometimes there were challenges. But actually, I felt that the U.S. team was a really good set of people. I felt pretty good about who was working on the project most of the time. And I think we may have had, once or twice, some folks that had a little harder time moving the work ahead than others, but, in general, I didn’t ever feel that was for lack of wanting to make progress. Some people just work faster, work better in certain environments than others – everyone has their own style. Of course, at times there were inter-laboratory politics regarding who would be assigned to different aspects of the project (or other site projects). But for the most part although I heard about it and could see it at higher levels of the program at times, I didn’t really feel it on our team – I felt that, in general, we had a very good team.

PW: Was there ever anybody from another Russian institute that was involved in implementing the work at Krasnoyarsk?

SS: The one I remember is, it’s not an institute, but it was one of the ones we had trouble with, Eleron. I recall these interactions, not just for us but for the Russians at the site as well, as being difficult. I heard from folks that had to work with them that they were slow and hard to deal with. I don’t think that was just with our team but also at other sites. I don’t want to say we never worked with other nuclear weapon complex sites, but I don’t recall any specific examples of that other than talking about training and education initiatives that might be important for supporting the systems being implemented at our site.

SH: So you did all – you did the P, the C, and the A. Mostly, the P and the A – the physical protection and the accounting – or…?

SS: We did. It was because of the nature of this site and what was there. As you are aware, it had the three production reactors. Two were shut down, as I recall in 1992. But one was still operating. And each of these reactors was built to produce about a half a ton of weapons-grade plutonium per year which was regularly sent on to other sites in the complex for subsequent steps in the process of making nuclear weapons. I believe they told us it was in 1994 (October, if I remember correctly), that Minatom sent them a letter that said, basically “we don’t need your plutonium anymore.” And so, starting in November of 1994, they did not ship out any more plutonium. As a result, they were accumulating tons of plutonium there, in a facility that was not meant to store plutonium for the long-term. And so, in talking to them about the fact that they had to find a place to put it, which of course they had room for – in this mountain there were many rooms – you realized that this situation had not been anticipated when designing and building their facility and processes. And it was necessary to consider the fact that this one reactor was still running. So as I recall everyone agreed that protecting the plutonium product was our priority – and so we agreed to start on that.

So, yes, physical protection in terms of getting the area where they kept the plutonium secured and then actually building a permanent storage facility with built-in physical protection components was one of the items that was high on the list. But in the meantime, we also needed to address the material control and accounting. Given the amount of the material and the attractiveness of the material – it was agreed this also was a critical part of the initial priority of protecting the plutonium. There were other aspects that needed to be addressed at the facility as well, for example, the HEU used in the spike ring of these production reactors, the plutonium processing line, and the reactor plant. But the primary focus in the years that I was there was addressing the plutonium storage issue.

AK: So, was it when you already started the program that they realized that the plutonium was no longer needed?

SS: I think it was just a couple years before the program at that site was initiated.

AK: So the problem was already there.

SS: The problem was already there. It was a in important site to work to include in the program.

SH: It was an important site to do.

SS: Yes, a very important site.

SH: Actually, just describe a little bit more what the main function was of K-26. Their claim to fame was the reactors in the mountains, and so forth. So describe the site a little bit.

SS: Basically it started with Stalin in 1950, and I always say, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at this meeting where people got together and someone suggested, and then it was decided, that it would not only be important but also necessary to assure that the capability to continue to make nuclear weapons was available even in the case of all out nuclear war. It seems extraordinary – hard to understand from our current perspective of what such a war would be like. As a result, this site with three plutonium production reactors capable of churning out half ton weapons-grade plutonium per year, two reprocessing lines, and room to do other work as needed was built.

SH: That’s each?

SS: About one half a ton per year for each reactor, yes. Thank you. It’s just nightmarish to think of, on some level. But at that time it was something that they obviously thought was important. It’s seven million cubic meters; it’s a huge facility.

SH: You mean seven million cubic meters inside the mountain?

SS: Inside the mountain – inside the granite mountain. That’s how big the place is. And again, processing capability, some limited storage capability. But as I’ve said, the facility as operated over the last decades, was not meant to store a lot of material for a long time.

PW: As part of the program, you actually got at least some tour of the facilities?

SS: Yes, and every time we met at the site, we got to see a little bit more. The first time all we did was go in to the mountain, as I recall to a meeting room – and it was daunting because, you drive up and there’s just this little entrance as you enter into a very large mountain…

SH: Did you go in with something like a mining train?

SS: There was a train to take the workers into the facility. But usually, they just drove us in using a small van. Some of the team members, later on in the project – when they were working on physical protection upgrades to the train platform, putting in upgrades to address access control at this point – eventually were allowed to go into the mountain on the train. I think I may have ridden on it once. Usually though we went in on the van or other type of vehicle. The first time we went in they said “You’re the first people that have ever been to the radiochemical processing meeting room.” They would always make a big point of telling us about these firsts – it was clearly important to them to let us know that these things weren’t easy for them to arrange and that as our cooperation matured the security aspects of the site were allowing more and more glimpses of and details about the site to be revealed. Later it was, “you’re the first people that have been to this particular entrance to the…” And so, little by little, we got to go further in, go through change rooms, go through different parts of the facility. However, I certainly never went into the plutonium oxide storage area, although a bit later there were some ideas proposed for how that type of access could be provided. That was something that wasn’t going to happen, at least at that point in time. I don’t know if anyone ever ultimately did. We were provided with photographs before and after the upgrades, for example new doors, TIDs, [tamper indicating devices] … as they were implemented and this was very helpful.

SH: It turns out, Sara, that at Seversk (Tomsk-7) Mark Mullen, Jim Toevs, and Dana Christensen and I visited in November 1997 and they actually decided to take this big step and show us the plutonium oxide storage area. They said it was a big deal to show us the stored plutonium oxide. And it was very important because when we saw how the well protected the storage area was, it reinforced my view that this was probably the best protected and best well-kept plutonium in Russia. And if.they had to continue producing plutoniu for another few years because they needed the heat from the reactor for space heating, it wasn’t that big a problem because it was well protected. That was particularly true considering that there was plutonium at many other facilities that was so less well protected.

SH: Remind me, who was the Los Alamos person at Seversk, at Tomsk-7?

SS: I think it was… I can picture him, Rich… Marceau I believe.

SH: Oh, Rich Morgado.

SS: Yes. At least part of the time it was him. So I chatted with him, to get perspective, and learn as much as I could from his and others’ experiences. And even if you just saw pictures that the site provided of the storage area there at K-26, it helped to understand the situation. In the picture, it looked like a hallway where they were storing the oxide and they would tell us – this is good, we’ve done this, and this, and this – and we are doing all these other procedures to secure it. But for the long term, and given the fact that this reactor did ultimately keep going for a while producing plutonium and that space at the current storage site space was limited, it was important to get a longer-term storage facility in there, and so we talked about where it should go and related concerns. I know when we went into the mountain and saw pictures of the facility, the director made a big point of saying that there were only twelve people that are allowed to go to that facility. And there was even a newspaper interview; I think I’ve got a copy of it. They were very serious about saying that protecting this material is important, we take it seriously. They wanted to work with us to perform upgrades, implementation of other systems for physical protection improvements, MPC&A improvements, but, you know, they said – we’re very adamant that we take this very seriously and it’s me, it comes down to me.

SH: So you actually met the director in your first visit? That was Lebedev, right?

SS: Yes.

SH: You know, eventually he and Vasily Zhidkov came here to Los Alamos. You were involved in that, right?

SS: I think so.

SH: I know Mark and Jim Toevs were. So when you discussed these things with him, the whole spectrum of MPC&A, with respect to what you just said, did you discuss things like insider threat, or did you do any sort of vulnerability assessment?

SS: Yes, of course that was one of the big points, as you are aware, of what was discussed a lot at the facilities. One of the things that was said, the comment that it’s only these twelve people, kind of alludes to the fact that there was thinking about an insider threat. But at the same time, you know, it was a mountain. And it’s not going to be easy to get into. There were basically three ways into the mountain. The one service entrance, the rail commuter entrance, and then ventilation. So clearly the mindset of the mountain being an important part of the protection was there too. We did have a lot of discussions about, ok, you want it to be protected but if you don’t know how much is there, how do you know if you have any missing? And so we did have those types of discussions. And I think at that time it wasn’t just about, obviously, the material and concerns regarding a breakdown of the guns and guards approach, but at that time there was also a concern that about all the people that weren’t getting paid at these facilities. And these concerns were linked in with the smuggling incidents that were going on at that point. As a part of our work at the site we did perform vulnerability assessments and provide tools for them to perform their own assessments (to address the issue of them not always being able to share all details regarding the site). I think we did come to a place where there was agreement that there were upgrades that needed to be addressed to complement the other measures that were being taken. Those were discussions that we had and at some level the recognition was there that more could be done beyond the current way of doing things – beyond what was the very first comment, at that very first meeting. Then is became a matter of how much effort do you need to put in and at what level in the spectrum of all the things you might consider doing. And that’s where I think more discussion had to happen.

PW: The timeline… The effort at Krasnoyarsk started after the effort at Tomsk?

SS: Yes, I believe so. Not too much after it, but it was in the same chunk of those six facilities.

PW: So it was the second wave…

SS: Yes, I do remember going and talking to Rich, though, before going. So I think he at some level had gotten started before I did.

PW: I was just wondering how the ice got broken in some of these sites. It’s one thing to say on the program plan; it’s another to actually get in.

SH: When was your last visit there?

SS: That is an excellent question. I would say probably 1999. And I don’t know if I went in 2000 or not.

SH: Because 1998 was when we had first Gennady Khandorin, who was the director of the Siberian Chemical Combine at Tomsk-7, and then Valery Lebedev and Vasily Zhidkov from K-26 here at Los Alamos. We toured them through the TA-55 Plutonium Facility, and then we had Lebedev and Zhidkov over in our house for dinner. We also had Khandorin over for dinner during his visit. Both were in 1998.

So when you finished, what was your sense of how close to the original mission we were of worrying about safeguards, security, protection of things at Krasnoyarsk-26? Did you leave still saying, “Oh my god. I don’t know what these folks are going to do, but this is a disaster.” Or did you leave and say, “Hey, I think they’ve got things in pretty good shape?”

SS: No, I felt like things were headed in the right direction. I mean they weren’t done when I personally left, but I definitely felt good about the priorities that we set. I felt like the site people themselves were … you know, Zhidkov was, I felt, committed, there were other folks there that seemed genuinely [committed to], besides the important job of securing the material, also interested in the technical aspects. For example, I still remember that they decided to call the CoreMAS – at that time that system was used by a number of facilities as a basis for building their computerized accounting system – they called it KrasMAS. So I felt like there was genuine interest in that group at that time in learning more about what some of these tools could do, figuring out a way to implement them in that worked for them, and, obviously one of the issues down the road for the program was sustainability and how that work and that thinking and those tools and future tools got used. That part I don’t know for K-26.

PW: But at that stage, you felt that they had internalized it in a way.

SS: They were headed in the right direction. That’s what I felt.

SH: Did you ever deal much with the Washington officials at all?

SS: Oh, absolutely. And that was a period, as you know, when there were a lot of changes going on. I was looking at some notes earlier today or last night, just looking back at how things went. One of the things I recalled as an issue was this strong change in how the program was managed. And I’ll say it’s an issue because it was a change – I don’t need to go into a value judgment there, but it made it hard. And then not only was it a change in how business was done and the program was managed but I can also remember going through a lot of different site POCs (point of contacts) from DOE. And so, we’d have one and then that one would be gone. And then we’d have another one. As you can imagine with the level of – as one of our team members used to call it, peeling the onion that went on as the program matured – every time we talked to the site and went to the site, we’d learn more and more about the site, their interests, their constraints, their challenges, the facility itself – and then you’ve got staff that are always changing and coming up to speed in terms of understanding where the program was, where we were coming from and why things were where they were, and what the progress was. And, at one time, although I don’t remember the specific issue – I remember working through a rather contentious issue we were dealing with and trying to address a certain concern we had regarding an implementation at the facility. And we had managed to agree on a path forward, a way through it during a meeting at the site over the course of a very long day of discussion with us, the staff from the site, and the federal representative. And it was hard, it included security concerns on their part, concerns on our part about access so really challenging to address. And after having a resolution agreed to, the federal representative came back and completely overturned it! Again, I’m not saying whether that was the right or the wrong answer, but it was challenging to be in that position, and it was hard for the site, and I recognize it was hard for these POCs that would come. Because this was not an easy facility and an easy culture to jump into. As they said, “we’re different out here. We’re out in Siberia.” And at times it was hard to deal with that.

SH: How did you do that travel? Did you go direct from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk?

SS: Yes. We would fly, of course from here, we’d usually leave on a Friday morning, I would have at least a couple flights to get from here to JFK and over to Moscow, usually getting in the morning of the next day. We’d hang out until about midnight, Saturday night for the long flight to Siberia. So we’d get into Krasnoyarsk Sunday morning, pile in a van, and drive to Zheleznogorsk where we stayed.

SH: How far was that?

SS: I would say that an hour, an hour and a half. It was long travel, and then we would be there all week, usually because, once you make the trip, it just helped actually to have those days. It wasn’t the kind of meeting you could get everything done in a couple of discussions just because, again, it seemed like it always helped if you spent the first day with “What are you thinking? What are we thinking?” And then by the end of the week, you could come with what you felt was agreed upon – although sometimes that agreement that wasn’t always as crystal clear for everybody as you might have hoped. But usually you were in a pretty good place by the end. Especially in the beginning, they always wanted to have an outing during the week, for example, “Wednesday night we’re going to get out on a boat and go camping at this great spot, go fishing and have fish stew on the river bank. Or, we’re going to go see one of the dams on the Yenisei.” [It was] to have some social time and some time to see their part of the country. And it seemed important to them as a part of the relationship and trust building process.

PW: So how was it?

SS: It was interesting; it was fun. I liked the little camping place, it was really cool, an old Russian cabin, or I guess, a Russian version of a cabin with these thick-walled fire places; it looked very typical to me.

AK: Did you do an overnight?

SS: Yes, we did overnight.

PW: You brought a sleeping bag, right?

SS: No. Nobody knew ahead of time what they had planned for us. They would say “Let’s go camping” we’d agree and then there we were with shashlik over a campfire. And so yes, it was interesting.

AK: Mosquitos?

SS: I don’t remember. I remember it was a big issue that was discussed in the U.S. regarding travel safety, I remember everybody used to be worried about it. But even though I always brought some repellent, it wasn’t a big issue where I was. For me I think the big issue was eating the fish. I was a little nervous about the fish out of the river there.

AK: Did you eat it though?

SS: I ate it. Evidently, it didn’t do me any harm. So, it was interesting to have these outings, and I think people enjoyed chatting. You know, hanging out. It did get to the point where we felt, “Ok, maybe we don’t need to take out a whole day or a half a day” for these outings. We need to keep working, you know. I realize that sometimes I can be a bit of a workaholic. But it got to the point where we didn’t do those longer trips anymore. But they did usually take us to some sort of event or outing. Maybe we would go out to dinner, once they started having some restaurants around. At first, it didn’t seem like there were restaurants around, or maybe they didn’t take us to them, I don’t know. But later on we would stop in Krasnoyarsk and go to a restaurant on the way to the airport or go to a music event or ballet; something like that every now and then. Sometimes we would go to someone’s house or apartment. Vasily Zhidkov invited us over to his apartment once, which was very kind.

The other thing we really liked to do, that we didn’t get to do at first, was to get out and walk. The first few times we went there – we stayed in what was the facility’s sanatorium that included dormitory type areas – they would actually lock us in at night. I mean there’s was a big black, like out of a cartoon or something, padlock on the door. It was not a good feeling and finally one of the guys on the team said, “this is a safety issue.” And I agreed “Yes, you’re right. This is a safety issue, and it’s also rather annoying.” I had to go talk to the site folks about that – it was one of the kind of things you had to deal with. But finally, we did get to the point – probably after two visits or three visits – where they would let us out in the morning to go walking around town. Most of us really enjoyed that and at the time it felt like a great breakthrough for us, to be able to get out on our own in that closed city. I’m sure we looked like some sort of motley crew wandering around Zheleznogorsk, this group of six guys and me on our morning walks. I suppose it seems like a fairly small thing now but it was great. It made a big difference, and it was beautiful. It was beautiful in Siberia. You realize how many resources are out there, the land, the forest, the rivers. That’s a big, big country and it made an impression on me. I mean, that was another big impression.

So anyway, that is just a little tidbit on recreational challenges while working on the program. But it was important for us because the work was intense. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of what usually turned out to be a ten-day trip, including travel. You’re dealing with your team and all the internal team needs, you’re dealing with the interaction with the Russians, and you’re trying to keep track of what has been done and how to keep the program moving forward. Much of this, of course, through time-consuming and challenging but essential interpretation.

SH: Did the DOE folks travel with you ever?

SS: Yes, after some point in the program they would assign someone to go with us to the site on every trip. But as I said before, those people seemed to turn over a lot.

PW: You wore them out.

SS: We would work to get them up to speed, but then often by the next trip they’d switch them out.

SH: But they did come along and typically…

SS: Later in the program, yes, they would come along on every trip.

SH: Now, you know, Zheleznogorsk and of course K-26 basically went out of the nuclear weapons business. And they were one of the earlier ones that worked very hard on defense conversion. And you probably remember they had this silicon project – silicon wafer – then part of the NCI [Nuclear Cities Initiative] program and so forth. Did you ever work on any of those things, or did they talk to you about the conversion reference?

SS: Yes, they did. And it was the same couple of folks, I think Zhidkov and then Konstantin Dorofeev, who was one of the folks that worked on, and I think the one who coined the term Kras MAS for their computerized accounting system. They were both very interested in these other efforts; the forward thinking in terms of trying to come up with new ideas and business models for the site. I didn’t work with them on any of those initiatives, but they talked about the fact that, these types of efforts were very important because they while they were going out of the plutonium production business they had important resources and facilities. They, spoke about wanting to transition into waste storage and processing, MOX fabrication, and some of those were longer term efforts that continued to be pursued well after I left the program. They wanted to learn about our business models, and I think that was in part based on a genuine interest in how to manage our program most effectively, but also in part because learning these systems clearly would be valuable for contracting other work with folks from other countries. They did have delegations from other places visiting the site while we were there at different times. I remember overlapping with a Japanese delegation at one time. I know one of our team members from Sandia was working with the site on finding a way to get a peanut butter-ish sludge out of some of their waste tanks, for example. So there was a movement towards branching out, but I really just focused on the MPC&A program.

SH: My recollection is, I think that PNNL folks had a big effort with what they call “International Business Center” or something like that. That was a bit after your time.

SS: Might have been, yes.

SH: They had a few of the places that they had worked with trying to help them out, presumably, develop some business acumen and a business center. So in your interactions, those were just peripheral interactions.

SS: For the most part. But yes, they were clearly interested in those types of opportunities – they knew that they needed to come up with some other business options, and again, there was a significant set of capabilities there. I think many of them liked living there, had roots there and so they were invested in finding the next set of missions. It reminded me a little bit of Los Alamos in that sense that I think people are very dedicated to the jobs they do at the Lab, but for the most part they also like living in Los Alamos and they want to see the Lab and their town stay healthy.

SH: Lebedev wound up in Moscow when Zhidkov took over as director. I saw him in Moscow a couple of times afterwards. So who took over for you?

S: I figured you’d ask me this. I’m thinking it was someone from Brookhaven.

SH: And then you basically dropped out of that, right?

SS: Yes, I mean other than transferring information, and being available for background information and questions as needed. Every now and there would be a call to ask me, “Can you take a look?” or “Can you help me remember this?” obviously, I would help as possible. But in terms of formally working on the project, I wasn’t part of the team at that point.

SH: By the way, Los Alamos, did do less and less under MPC&A… The other Labs stepped in in a big way.

PW: It much more became a matter of contracting and implementing, not real innovating ways in which to tackle these issues.

SS: I felt very lucky that I got to contribute during the early days of the program and at that particular site. There was a very strong sense that this was such an important and urgent issue to be addressing, it was interesting, and we were going in as the first folks taking a look at that whole site and their set of strengths and concerns, working with them to identify priorities, develop strategies, for the initial phase of the program. That was a great time.

SH: Were the Russians what you expected? In terms of both the facilities and the people.

SS: Yes, I guess regarding the facilities, I didn’t really have a strong expectation of what it was going to be like. I hadn’t been in Russia before I worked on this program. I had done international work before, I did a postdoc in Germany, and I spent a summer in Nicaragua when I was in high school giving vaccinations to children, and we traveled extensively in Mexico when during the summers when I was growing up so I definitely had been exposed to a range of different experiences. Not having been exposed to the Russian culture, I didn’t have a strong expectation, but I found them to be very warm people, personally. In terms of working with them at times we both felt we needed get a bit tough, be firm about what we felt needed to get done, but that is going to be the case working through any large complex initiative, anywhere. Hashing through issues, sometimes you know, it could be challenging to get to a productive middle ground. But I found them very nice. And very warm. And I mentioned, you know, about the kids. Seeing the kids around Zheleznogorsk and their rosy cheeks and how they treated my kids, I thought they were personally very nice to deal with.

Well, and I also learned new skills like toasting… I can remember being told that as the team lead it was my job to make sure and not only contribute but sometimes make the first toast. My initial reaction was, “Are you kidding?” But as with many things with practice you get really good at it. And they appreciated it, you’d sit there at the table before the final joint meal of the week and say something to the group. And you could of course just make a quick acknowledgement and thank you, or you could try to come up with something meaningful, that draws in the experience of the week and comes from the heart. And they appreciated it, and it was a good exercise on my part, learning how to do that.

SH: How about culture in Zheleznogorsk? Did you see, in terms of what they try to do to make sure there’s culture in this city? Contrasting or comparing to Sarov, for example, we saw that, in a big way, they wanted to make sure that they had enough cultural facilities and so forth. Did Zheleznogorsk have…?

SS: Yes, I think definitely. They had a museum they were very proud of. We would go there a to see their local art, paintings, there were special kinds of pottery and figurines they made and sold there. One time we went to a ballet. And music, they would have concerts that we attended. In the summer, I remember going some outside concerts. And so yes, definitely. Again, it’s far from a lot of Russia. Krasnoyarsk was the closest major city but it would be difficult, I think, to travel there for any kind of recreation. They definitely had created their own cultural opportunities.

AK: In Krasnoyarsk?

SS: Yes, there were events in Krasnoyarsk and we did go to an event there once.

SH: Did Vasily play the piano for you?

SS: I don’t remember that.

SH: It turns out, at our house, when they were here for dinner, Vasily played the piano, and Jim Toevs played his horn.

SS: Oh wow.

SH: So the two of them gave us a mini concert.

SS: No, I don’t recall him doing that. I recall him and the rest of us participating in karaoke at the guest house after dinner – they always insisted on everyone joining in – and it was a pretty fun way to spend an evening in Siberia, but not Vasily playing the piano.

SH: The other people on your team were all men.

SS: Yes.

SH: You kept them in line?

SS: The guys and me; we were a very diverse group of people. And there were others who would come in from time to time on a specialty activity when we needed some deeper expertise. But the core team was all men except for me.

SH: And on the Russian side, you didn’t have any particular problem with them accepting a woman who’s going to run this?

SS: I think they thought it was a little weird at first. At least, it was my impression that they thought it was noteworthy. They never said weird of course but you could tell they thought it was unusual. I remember they wanted to interviewed me for the local TV station, and that was one of the questions they asked me: “What’s it like being a woman working on this program …” In addition to being the only woman on our technical team, it was mostly men that were participating from the Russian side. However, I don’t recall really having any serious feeling that our efforts were hindered or anyone had a hard time working with me because I was a woman and the team leader. I don’t recall that on either the U.S. side or the Russian side. And again, Vasily was great because he was very progressive, energetic, and he just embraced the situation as it was offering mutual respect and an investment in getting the job done. He was a good counterpart.

SH: He was also what I would call quite young for a Russian in that position.

SS: He was. And I was probably young-ish at that point as well. And so there was that in common between the two of us. But I think it made for good teamwork. That was my feeling.

PW: Your engagement didn’t stop there. As you said, you went on and did some things around the periphery of other programs. In particular, the one that sticks in my mind because I guess I was more involved in it, was the nuclear energy efforts.

SS: Well, that was a really interesting one. I think it was 2006, and I had just taken over as program director for the Civilian Nuclear Energy Programs at LANL. And it was the timing where, I’m trying to remember exactly how this all came out, but, basically, the presidents of Russia and the United States decided to initiate a cooperation on civilian nuclear energy. They decided this, I want to say, in September or August and they wanted a signed, sealed program plan, with priorities, core technical areas of cooperation, initial tasks and a team identified documented and signed by December 10th; DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy was tasked with leading this effort. Anyway, I think you sent them to me, Sig. That’s what I recall. And, amazingly, we did it but it was a push. The experience of working with organizations including Minatom, Rosatom, and understanding how we all approach these types of cooperative efforts, understanding their perspective was incredibly important. Of course, this was a different technical area, nuclear energy versus nonproliferation, although nonproliferation was a subset of the overall effort, but many of the same skills I had learned and used in the K-26 program were very important. I still can’t believe we got it done.

PW: You got it done.

SH: But what happened to it?

SS: Well, we actually worked on it for—what, a couple of years? And then there was the conflict in Georgia and the U.S. responded, in part, by ceasing this and other types of cooperation.

SH: 2008.

SS: Yes, and then that was it.

SH: So that’s an interesting aspect because, you know, 2014, Crimea, lots of other things went downhill even more steeply. It’s true, I hadn’t thought of this angle for a while, but it was Georgia in 2008. Washington felt they had to do something, and, of course this was still the Bush administration at that time – even though the Bush administration was very much inclined to do nuclear energy cooperation with the Russians, which the Clinton administration was not. I tried to push it through most of the Clinton administration; they did not want to do nuclear energy. They never did much of anything in nuclear energy with Russia. So then the Bush administration was inclined to cooperate in that direction. And that’s how you got to this point. Finally, they were going to do something, you guys put together a great plan.

SS: Yes, we got it all finished but then it went on the shelf for a while. But a few years later the U.S. and Russia wanted to start this cooperation again and DOE NE asked me to help set it up again. I can’t remember exactly what year that was, but I’m sure it’s off the table again now.

SH: It has, because what they wound up doing with the Obama administration was, during the so-called “reset” period, when they were going to get the relationships back on a very good track, they did actually wind up officially signing a 1-2-3 agreement, the official U.S.-Russian nuclear agreement for peaceful atomic energy. And then from there, geared up again…

SS: So we did it all again. There were also cooperative efforts started in some new areas, for example on fuel cycle services.

SH: That we were going to work together. That looked like it might go in the right direction, but then as far as the weapons Labs were concerned, Rosatom insisted on a separate S&T agreement, a science and technology agreement. When did you officially retire?

SS: That’s another great question. Let’s see, it was 2012. That second round of the U.S.- Russia nuclear energy cooperation was still underway when I left because I handed it off to Brian Cowell at Oakridge.

SH: Well, and September 2013 is when Ernest Moniz and Sergei Kirienko signed the S&T agreement to really allow the Labs to get back to work together. And then the same drill happened, lots of Lab people all were proposing what we’re going to do in working together in a whole range …

SS: Broader than nuclear energy… multiple efforts were already going on at that point.

SH: This was no longer nuclear. It included nuclear energy, but it had five, six, seven categories. And they were working on that into 2013, 2014, when Crimea happened. And then everything was gone from there … But now you told me that you are still doing a little work with Japan.

SS: Yes, I’m helping support the Japan-U.S. Civil Nuclear Energy Research and Development Working Group. And it’s interesting. Different topics in some cases, than what we worked on with the Russians. But it’s been really interesting. I had never worked in a focused way with Japan before, so it’s been a new experience for me. And I’ve done a few other things since I’ve retired. I appreciate contributing to the longer-term programs like the one with Japan, you have a chance to really dig into the variety of technical projects and to get to know your Japanese counterparts. But it is also interesting and useful to get the chance to contribute to a one-time program review or aspect of a specific project. I enjoy that too.

SH: So, bottom line, was it worth it all?

SS: Absolutely. In addition to everything I learned and contributed, what I loved about it was that I felt it was a great program. You know, some things you work on at the Lab, it’s harder to chat about with folks outside the Lab. But I’d be on a plane on my way to Russia, or I’d be visiting family, and get questions that I could answer and that people could relate to. I still remember seeing my aunt and uncle in Denver once and they asked, “What are you working on these days?” And I said, “I’m working on program that is protecting weapons grade materials at the source and here’s what we are doing.” And the reaction was, “Woah, that’s awesome.” It was a great one to talk to people about, letting know about the kinds of things that are going on in the world, the kinds of things that our government and the Labs are undertaking. I just thought there were so many good aspects to it. As I said, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to contribute.

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