This Month's Special: Soviet Technology

It was once a high temple of Soviet research. The Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Science, a sprawling complex shrouded by birch trees in Moscow, employed the sharpest--and most pampered--scientists in the land. Some 10,000 of them turned out world-class work in diamond-coating, thermonuclear fusion, and nuclear-reactor technologies. Thanks to the meltdown of the Soviet empire, however, the institute has been reduced to hawking its services to Western companies at fire-sale prices. "At present, the government has no money to support us," says nuclear power specialist Semyon D. Malkin, a senior researcher at Kurchatov.

These are humbling times for Russia's once-mighty science establishment. Cast adrift by their nation's breakup, top researchers are trying to spin their expertise and technology into hard currency. This trend presents a unique chance for U.S. companies and government agencies to gain a competitive edge. Some Russian items, such as compact nuclear reactors for powering satellites, aren't available in the West. In other cases, the allure is simply that "their prices are ridiculously low," says Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow and now a physics professor at the University of Maryland.

The Russians see plenty of reasons to sell out. At Kurchatov, for instance, the rent, heat, and electricity bills alone have gone up more than tenfold since last year. By peddling everything from rockets to high-tech ceramics, the scientists can keep their research alive. Yet, some critics are wary of the emerging techfest. Pentagon hard-liners worry that by funding Russian brainpower, the West could be aiding a potential adversary should despotism reemerge. Experts also fear that a flourishing high-tech trade could help Third World tyrants obtain military technologies--much of what the Russians have for sale. "I feel we should do nothing that fosters the proliferation of high-tech weapons throughout the world," says Deputy Defense Secretary Donald J. Atwood.

Despite such concerns, a number of U.S. companies are eagerly shopping in Russia. Loral Corp., a New York-based maker of satellites and defense electronics, said on Apr. 1 that it's negotiating a distribution deal with Fakel Enterprise, a maker of rocket-propulsion systems in Kaliningrad. Loral is acquiring two of Fakel's Hall thrusters that use electricity from solar panels and batteries. In space, these small rockets help navigate satellites into their appropriate orbit--and help keep them there at about half the cost for conventional chemical-based rockets. "These boosters have been flight-tested for 10 years without fail," says John Kiser, a Washington-based consultant who brokered the deal.

DISCOUNT TOPAZ. After initially holding back, the Bush Administration has jumped in, too. It recently agreed to spend $14 million to buy a Russian Topaz space-based nuclear reactor and plutonium-238 fuel. The deal also includes two Hall boosters that will be studied by NASA and the Defense Dept. At $8 million, the Topaz, a lightweight nuclear reactor used to power a satellite, is a steal; the U.S. has its own billion-dollar program to develop a space reactor. Atwood says the U.S. and Russia may also undertake joint Strategic Defense Initiative research: "They could become a technology partner in this area."

Closer to earth, even the Energy Dept. hopes to save greenbacks. It is spending $200 million to buy giant Russian magnets for the $8.25 billion superconducting supercollider--or atom smasher--under construction in Waxahachie, Tex. "They are probably the best in the world at making these magnets," says Joseph R. Cipriano, director of Energy's Super Collider Laboratory, which had been planning to build such magnetsdomestically.

In the meantime, United Technologies Corp. and Spain's National Institute of Industry have linked up with Moscow's Institute of Structural Macrokinetics to explore the commercial potential of Russian methods for making materials. The center boasts a combustion-synthesis method that uses intense temperatures to turn out heat- and abrasion-resistant ceramic powders that go into coatings for spacecraft and military hardware. "The Soviets have always managed to produce these items in a far more economical manner" than UTC has, says Michael Werle, director of technology resources at the company.

`FIRE SALE.' American companies have also started buying Russian brainpower, often at astonishingly low prices. General Atomics, a privately held San Diego physics research company that is an Energy Dept. contractor, recently hired the Kurchatov Institute--for $90,000--to conduct a year's worth of hot-fusion energy experiments using its world-class Tokamac reactor. That's enough to pay most of the institute's large staff for a month, but by Western standards it's a paltry sum. "Right now, it's a fire sale," says Rush Holt, assistant director of Princeton University's Plasma Physics Dept., where spending on hot fusion runs $110 million a year.

So opportunism is in. Sun Microsystems Inc. in February hired supercomputer guru Boris A. Babayan and 50 specialists at the Institute of Precision Mechanics & Computer Technology to take advantage of their expertise in software. "We can get a team of people for what it would cost for one or two over here," says David R. Ditzel, who heads Sun's research unit.

Such bargains may not last forever, as the rest of the world gets a yearning for Russian smarts. The French, for example, recently hired Russian scientists to evaluate the Hermes manned space shuttle. And the Russian scientific establishment will become more savvy. On Apr. 7, scientists at the Kurchatov Institute formed a joint venture with New York-based National Patent Development Corp. to market such technologies as diamond-hard coatings for military hardware. Kurchatov's Malkin reckons the deal may eventually generate hundreds of millions in revenues. But until then, he and others will take whatever they can get.

      U.S. companies and government agencies are shopping for technology and talent 
      in the former Soviet Union
      SUN MICROSYSTEMS Hired 50 researchers at Moscow's Institute of Precision 
      Mechanics & Computer Technology to design software and chips
      NATIONAL PATENT DEVELOPMENT Has a joint venture with Moscow's Kurchatov 
      Institute to market diamond-hard coverings for spacecraft, computer disk 
      drives, and other products
      LORAL Is negotiating a joint venture with Fakel Enterprise in Kalinin-
      grad to distribute satellite-propulsion systems
      UNITED TECHNOLOGIES Is working with Moscow's Institute of Structural 
      Macrokinetics on new high-strength ceramics technology
      U.S. GOVERNMENT Plans to pay $14 million for a Russian Topaz space-based 
      nuclear reactor. Also: $200 million for magnets for use in the superconducting 
      supercollider in Waxahachie, Tex.
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