Video: Cold War nuke center reinvents itself

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/22/2006 3:06:06 PM ET 2006-03-22T20:06:06

The buildings along Joliot-Curie Street, the main thoroughfare in this science-mad town, are a symbol of a once-elite institution trying to reinvent itself.

For celebrations marking the anniversary of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, founded 50 years ago this month as the communist world’s axis of nuclear know-how, facades are freshly painted.

But step around the corner, and the sides of the once-proud buildings are a faded web of cracking paint and stucco.

Inside the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions, there are other signs of the struggle between a glorious past and an uncertain future. Dimly lit hallways, made perilous by dangling cables and ceiling tiles, give way to small labs filled with scientists working on brand-new Hewlett Packard and Dell computers — Dubna’s tenuous, albeit high-speed, connection to the rest of the world.

Surviving the Soviet collapse
Nearly 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the star of Dubna, as the institute is commonly known, has faded. Budgets have been slashed, research curtailed. The buildings that once housed the brightest minds of science behind the Iron Curtain need more than a fresh coat of paint.

For Dubna’s member states — former Soviet republics and satellite countries such as Poland and Bulgaria once in the Kremlin’s orbit — nuclear research is no longer a pressing national concern.

“During the last 15 years, we had problems connected with economic difficulties in our countries,” said Dubna’s director, Alexei Sissakian.

Dubna’s budget for 2006 is $37.5 million, which is stretched to provide everything from research projects to housing and subsidies for more than 5,000 staff. Sixty percent of the budget comes from Russia, with other member states contributing according to a scale determined by size and wealth.

“For this kind of institute, it’s not much,” Sissakian admitted, noting that the budget of CERN, Dubna’s European counterpart, is roughly 20 times higher.

“Nevertheless, we have survived,” Sissakian said.

Storied history
With dozens of important discoveries to its name, including the theory of super fluidity and super conductivity, Dubna still carries many echoes of its past. Black-and-white photos of seminal institute events line corridors, and a newly renovated canteen is called Café 105, after Dubna’s most famous addition to the Periodic Table of Elements (christened “Dubnium”).

But there is a new catch phrase in the institute’s darkened corridors: special economic zone. The Russian government recently decreed Dubna as one of four state-funded technoparks to be completed by 2010 — a move could make or break Dubna and the thousands of scientists and researchers it employs.

Although Russian authorities have a checkered track record in providing economic incentives to the technology sector, scientists hope this time the government gets it right by providing tax breaks and investment opportunities.

The country has the educational underpinnings to make it work. Russia graduates some 200,000 science and technology specialists every year — a number equal to India, which has five times the population, and where President Putin visited a month before he announced Russia’s technopark scheme.

“It’s a new birth,” said Mikhail Itkis, director of the Flerov Laboratory.

‘Innovation belt’
Dubna has about 50 current projects with applications to everyday life, including nuclear filters that can be used to maintain the sterility of rooms in hospitals. Scientists say the fields of radiation monitoring, nanotechnology, IT and telecommunications could attract both outside investment and bright young minds to replenish Dubna’s ranks.

“We hope this law will support us to develop an innovation belt around our laboratories,” Sissakian said.

Until then, Dubna will have to rely on government subsidies to stay afloat, not an easy task when many member states are facing economic hard times.

Last year, for instance, North Korea failed to pay in full a $150,000 bill for a small group of students studying what Sissakian called “fundamental” physics in Dubna.

“They have financial problems,” Sissakian said understatedly.

NBC News' Preston Mendenhall is based in Moscow, Russia.

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