The Adventures Of George Crile

No American had ever been inside the plutonium-producing mountain at the center of Krasnoyarsk-26. But in 1998, CBS News Producer George Crile was given access.

How did he manage to talk his way in? Crile has spent the last two years chronicling how Russian and American nuclear commands have dealt with the end of the Cold War. Over this time, he has gained the trust of Russia's nuclear commanders, who, after careful negotiations, allowed him to visit for five days.

CBS.com talked to him about his experience in Krasnoyarsk-26. Here's what he had to say.
On Russians' Fear Of Digital Cameras

Crile: "We had an absolutely hysterical KGB nanny with us. We had three of them, actually, but one of them was with us all the time. They went through absolute conniptions with us. We went in with a Russian camera crew, because for some reason they didn't want an American camera crew."

"So we have our trusty Russian camera crew, and Neeraj [Khemlani, Crile's producing partner,] and I brought our little digital cameras. They became convinced that we were trying to take pictures and capture sound with these little cameras - which was of course true."

"But why they considered those more sinister than the bigger ones was beyond us. It's just that the digital cameras were unfamiliar, so they thought they were spy cameras somehow."

Read about a joint Russian-American project to study and control the spread of weapon-grade nuclear material.
"It always had to do with the little camera. They came in one night, early on, exceedingly upset."

"So I tried some counter-intuitive move, which was to offer to burn all the tapes in front of them right away. This seemed to unnerve the KGB man, because that was excessive. The whole project had been commissioned, and he was going to have responsibility for having destroyed all of the film. So they backed off."

On American Curiosity

Crile: "They were just totally freaked out by the fact that we were the first Americans wandering around with cameras, going into their secret mountain, asking questions, trying to open doors, going into these rooms where even they didn't know what was going on. They certainly didn't want us sort of rampaging around."

"Also there's a natural impulse, an American reporter's instinct, an irreverent, free spirit. This is just incomprehensible to these people. They find it amusing, terrifying, interesting, terrifying - it goes bouncing back and forth."

"They don't know what to do. [They think] 'How do you control this. These people seem to be unreasonable. They don't respond like everyone else does. Every tie you tell them one thing, they go off and do some bizarre other thing.'"

Secret, But Not Very Secure

Crile: "What we're concerned, what our government is concerned about, is that this plutonium will somehow get out. What the Russians, the Soviets in the old days, were concerned about, was that somehow to prevent Americans, or outsiders, from getting in, to take something from these places. Rather than something within going out."

Prior to his visit, a group of American scientists had visited, to teach the Russians about security.

"What the American scientists were doing there was just so modest. And preposterous. They were simply trying to teach the Russians to bar code, as in a supermarket, so that the Russians could identify what canisters of plutonium they had, so that if it "left," they would have an inventory."

"Another person was trying to go in to teach them to evaluate how much they had, because it only takes a very small amount to, for example, constitute a transformational event in Iraq. A coffee can full of this stuff in Saddam's hands and he's suddenly able to say 'If you bomb one more time, I'm going to use this bomb to take out one of your cities, or Israel.'"

Patriotism Under Duress

Crile: "Oddly, the main thing you find there is that in spite of the all the horrors and difficulties they're suffering, they seem to have some passionate capacity to suffer for the Motherland. When it comes to doing anything that would be hurtful to the survival of their country, that seems to be a line they don't like to cross."

"They're incredibly patriotic. They're capable of suffering enormously, not being paid for a long time, for months and months, and so far not being tempted by selling this material."

Even After The Cold War, The Danger Continues

Crile: "The terrible thing is that these are monumental creations. A city of 100,000 in the forests of Siberia, which has to be sustained or else these people, with all of their guilty knowledge, go spinning out."

"And the materials don't stay in secure hands. This is a very challenging undertaking. If you don't find a way to retool these cities, and convert this energy into nonlethal activities, we will all have a terrible price to pay."

At The Same Time, An Enormous Opportunity

Crile: "What you do see there is an opportunity for somebody - I was preoccupied by this. It's a dangerous place right now, but on the other hand it's such a stunning opportunity. Because never have I been in a place where people love their city as much as people love Krasnoyarsk-26."

"They adore it. They don't want to open up their city. They don't want the raggedy, dangerous, criminal elements to come into their former socialist utopia. They are incredibly well-educated, technically proficient midde class community that is in search of an identity and a role for this world. and probably for some company it's the great buy of the century."

"You can walk in there and pay the most talented people $100 a month, or $200 a month, and get them to draw on their infrastructure and their talents to do whatever you want."

Plutonium, Unsung Nuclear Hero

Crile: "You usually focus on the weapons. Where the missiles are, nuclear submarines patrolling the oceans, huge ICBMs in silos hidden deep underground, satellites watching from the skies."

"But everything has to begin with the science, and this precious element at the core of the nuclear weapon. You have to have this highly enriched plutonium, or uranium. Without it all those missiles don't mean anything. It's a monstrous difficult thing to produce. Saddam Hussein has spent $4 or $5 billion to make it, and he can't. Basically all he needs is a coffee can full of it and he can have a bomb."

Russian Nuclear Commanders: Regular Guys

Crile: "These are men of good faith, oddly enough, much like our own missileers, or scientists, who really tended to operate out of the impulse that they were protecting their countries and with the conviction that they were facing a hideous enemy, who was dangerous."

"It's a little bit weird for us to confront that, because we don't think of ourselves that way. But they are a people accustomed to being attacked by their friends. The Germans were their great allies, and suddenly surprise attacked them in World War II."

The Ultimate Example Of Cold War Paranoia

Crile: "If you look at Krasnoyarsk-26, there's probably no better single illustration of just how paranoid the former Soviet Union was about a surprise attack. It began to be built about 1950. This was way before we had the capacity to strike with the kind of power we have now."

"It was designed, way back then, for the purposes of surviving a nuclear attack, and being able to ride it out, and continue to make plutonium for more bombs. This was the mindset of the times."

The Genesis Of A Secret City

Crile: "Krasnoyarsk-26 didn't exist 50 years ago. You look at the pictures and it's just a forest, a huge Siberian forest. There's these pictures of these hauntingly attractive romantic young communists at St. Petersburg. They're engineers and physicists."

"They're sent, flying off to go find a mountain in the woods where they can build three plutonium reactors. A plutonium reactor requires a huge amount of space, and no one's ever done it underground. So they go off, and bang, they see this thing, and thus begins this giant engineering project, which has got to be one of the modern wonders."

The Secret City: Main Page


Interview by David Kohn;
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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