The death knell for a deadly stockpile

One of the most dangerous chemical weapons arsenals in the world is getting demilitarised

Soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse, an American inspection team arrived at a decrepit storage complex in Siberia. The front gate was guarded by a scrawny teenage soldier who had not been paid in months. Giant sheds seemed to hold little of value. Why else would their doors be secured only with rusty bicycle locks?

The reality was far more disturbing: The sheds contained two million artillery shells and warheads filled with nerve agents, extremely deadly substances, row after row, stacked like cordwood. Many were portable, and a single one detonated in a stadium or other crowded area could kill tens of thousands of people.
Today, the site has been transformed. The inspection in 1994 was a catalyst for a far-reaching US plan to destroy those chemical weapons, culminating in the formal opening scheduled for Friday of a facility nearby to carry out the work.
The new facility, built with $1 billion in US aid, represents a milestone in a longstanding partnership between the United States and Russia to safeguard and in many cases liquidate enormous quantities of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons manufactured by the Soviet Union.
This overall arrangement between the nations has often been troubled, and the project to eradicate the chemical weapons site in the Siberian city of Shchuchye, first proposed in 1996, has been repeatedly delayed. Some members of US Congress sought to end financing, asserting that Russia should pay for the programme itself, and the US defence department’s oversight of the project was questioned by congressional auditors.
For its part, Russia imposed unwieldy regulations on the project, and it was reluctant to use its own money. In general, the Kremlin under Vladimir V Putin has grown much more secretive about these weapons sites, making it more difficult for US officials to verify how money is being spent.

Easy to steal and deploy

Still, US and Russian officials are hailing the opening of the new facility at Shchuchye (pronounced SHOO-che), 1,000 miles east of Moscow and just east of the Ural Mountains. They said these chemical weapons were in some respects a far more potent terrorist threat than nuclear ones because they are much easier to steal and deploy.
The opening of the facility underscores how the US and Russia have been able to hew to certain arms agreements even as overall relations soured during the Bush administration.
“This is one of the most historic steps forward ever in nonproliferation,” said Paul F Walker, who took part in the 1994 inspection as a congressional aide and is now a senior official at Global Green USA, an affiliate of an environmental organisation begun by Mikhail S Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader.
“One of the most dangerous chemical weapons arsenals in the world is finally getting demilitarised,” Walker said. “And it’s been a long, long time.”
As the early inspection of Shchuchye demonstrated, Russia’s economic and political disarray in the early 1990s had severe consequences for its military infrastructure. US officials became alarmed that unconventional weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
In 1991, Senators Sam Nunn, and Richard G Lugar, proposed a programme to help the countries of the former Soviet Union secure and destroy those weapons.
However rocky, the relative success of the Nunn-Lugar program has been cited by some Obama administration officials as offering hope for negotiations on future treaties. Russian and US officials are now engaged in talks on a new version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, which expires in December.
The shells and warheads at Shchuchye contain about 5,950 tonnes of nerve agents, including sarin and VX. To dispose of them, a hole will be drilled into each, and the agents will be drained and mixed with other chemicals to neutralise them. The residue will be solidified in asphalt or a similar material.
While the facility’s formal opening is on Friday, it began preliminary operations in March. Russia ended up allocating roughly $600 million for the project, and other countries contributed as well.
It has taken years to develop the process to eliminate the nerve agents, with the Russians choosing not to incinerate them because of local opposition. It might be five years or more before all the weapons are neutralised.
“It turns out that it is a lot easier to produce chemical weapons than to destroy them,” said Igor V Rybalchenko, a scientist who is a senior adviser to the Russian government.

Violation of environmental laws

Rybalchenko said the methods being used were safe. However, environmental groups expressed concern about the potential for accidents at the new facility. They contend that the Russian government has long violated environmental laws at such sites.
Lev A Fyodorov, president of the Russian Union for Chemical Safety, said people in Shchuchye had seen fires and other accidents at the storage complex in recent years, yet the government had never publicised them or explained what safety measures it had undertaken.
“At American storage bases, many kinds of accidents have occurred, and we know about them,” Fyodorov said. “In Russia, do we know about such things at Russian bases? Of course not. I am a Russian citizen, and the Russian government does not tell me anything. Do we need to destroy chemical weapons? Of course. But do we need to violate the environmental rules of Russia to do this?”
Russia and the United States have the vast majority of the world’s chemical weapons, and they have pledged to dispose of them under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Both countries have encountered problems in financing and logistics, and they are not expected to meet the 2012 deadline.
Shchuchye, in fact, has only 14 per cent of Russia’s chemical weapons, which are kept in seven sites.
But Shchuchye is considered perhaps the most critical location because many of the nerve agents are in shells. The city is close to Kazakhstan, which itself is near Afghanistan.
Lugar recalled that he often had to fend off congressional opposition to the Shchuchye project, especially from Republicans who said that US aid was allowing Russia to spend its own money on bolstering its military.
But Lugar, who plans to attend the opening ceremony on Friday, said that on an earlier visit, a single gesture showed that the storage site endangered the whole world.
“I took one of those shells,” he said, “and put it in a briefcase.”

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