The 14-year-old Initiative for Proliferation Prevention program, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, has already received one negative review from the Government Accountability Office in its lifetime. The GAO's second report, released in December, calls for the program to be reassessed.
The federal government originally established the program to prevent Russian nuclear scientists from selling their knowledge to rogue states after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused many scientists to lose their jobs. The program attempts to team Russian scientists up with U.S. companies, thereby redirecting the scientists' efforts into peaceful, commercial endeavors. One of the report's major condemning findings, however, suggests the program has strayed from this goal in recent years.
"GAO's analysis of 97 IPP projects involving about 6,450 scientists showed that more than half did not claim to possess any weapons-related experience," the report found.
Such statistics cast doubt on the program's effectiveness, said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
"This underscores the basic question of whether the IPP program is funding the right people and perhaps whether it can be made to work at all," Dingell said at a Jan. 23 hearing in the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
However, IPP officials dispute the GAO's findings.
"Our records indicate that more than 50 percent (of participating Russian scientists) have had weapons-related experience," said Adam Scheinman, assistant deputy administrator for nonproliferation and international security at the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the IPP program.
The program would employ a greater number of nuclear scientists if it could, Scheinman said, but the changes required by Congress after the GAO's 1999 report make it impossible to do so. Following that report's release, Congress mandated an increased emphasis on commercial projects, geared toward producing products that U.S. companies would want to buy or sell, and reduced funding for any non-commercial undertakings.
"The reason why it's not 80 or 90 percent (nuclear scientists) is simply that the focus on commercialization requires projects that are outside (the expertise) of a weapons-of-mass-destruction scientist," Scheinman told United Press International. "That means we have to bring in other scientists."
Other proponents of the program argue the percentage of nuclear scientists, and the commercial viability of projects, shouldn't be used as metrics to judge the program's success.
IPP's real triumph lies in relationships, said Christina Chuen of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, a non-governmental research organization.
The program instills a sense of ethics and a culture of security in the foreign scientists who participate, Chuen said, because they spend time working with U.S. scientists.
"Most of our people are so ingrained with procedures; they aren't going to take sensitive material home and they lock up all their stuff before they leave for the day (for example)," Chuen told UPI. "That influences the (foreign) scientists who participate."
Another of the report's troubling findings, the lack of an exit strategy, also worries Chuen, but for different reasons than it bothers the GAO.
"I think we need to be going toward a partnership … where we still have influence, we're still cooperating," she said.
More cooperation from the Russian government is exactly what Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., would like to see. Since IPP's inception, the Russian economy has improved drastically, and the time has come for them to contribute monetarily to the $30 million program, said Ryan Tracy, Shimkus's legislative director.
"We don't believe that the Department of Energy has asked Russia to commit to a cost share agreement for the program," Tracy told UPI. "The first step would be to inquire if Russia would be interested in doing this."
IPP officials said at last week's hearing they're looking into approaching the topic with Russian leaders but have not done so yet.
Other concerns about the program are more worrisome. Russian leaders have openly provided Iran's nuclear power development program with support and information, raising the question of whether IPP may actually be aiding proliferation. At last week's hearing, Robert Stratford, acting deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of International Security, confirmed this may be a possibility.
"You could argue that if you give Russia a dollar, that frees up a dollar that goes elsewhere, whether that's a scientists going to Iran or whatever," Stratford said.
However, no evidence of IPP aiding proliferation exists, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard University.
"Nothing about IPP encourages Russia to give information to Iran," Bunn told UPI. "Russia already has a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. Any technology that Russia would transfer to Iran, Russia's already got."
Although there are some problems with IPP, Bunn said it has potential to stop proliferation in countries of higher concern than Russia. In fact, he says the IPP program's expansion into Iraq and Libya should have happened faster and on a larger scale for maximum effectiveness. Other countries may benefit from it in the future, Bunn said.
"There's an obvious upcoming potential for this program in North Korea," he said.
Although no reform mandates for the program have been planned so far, the Oversight and Investigations Committee plans to continue its probe of IPP, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
"We need more hearings to know exactly what this program is doing to control, interdict and secure nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology throughout the world," he told UPI.