Soviet Stockpiles Of Chemical Arms Closer to Demise

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 31, 2007

SHCHUCHYE, Russia, Aug. 30 -- Out of the flatlands and swamps about 100 miles from Russia's southern border, a huge gray box of concrete, brick, pipes and wires is rising, a factory that next year may begin to neutralize one of the most threatening legacies of the Cold War.

A sign identifies Works No. 1207 as a structure for the storage and liquidation of chemical weapons. But the description does not begin to tell the story of the Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility, at $1 billion the largest single project in the U.S. effort to clean up weapons of mass destruction left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also one of the most troubled.

After years of stalled plans and disputes over financing, contracting and services for residents of the area, construction of the facility is now beyond the halfway point, officials said, and it could begin to destroy chemical weapons in December 2008.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who authored the Nunn-Lugar program to secure the dangerous materials and weapons remaining in the former Soviet Union, returned here Thursday for the first time in five years to examine the project, a keystone of their larger effort.

Thirteen miles out from the facility, they drove past the source of their fears -- a storage base surrounded by wire fences and made up of wooden warehouses, some with corrugated metal roofing, which for years have stored 1.9 million artillery shells filled with deadly nerve agents.

The shells range in size from 85mm rounds to warheads for Scud missiles, including 1.2 million pieces filled with sarin, 514,000 filled with soman and 157,540 with VX, officials said. A tiny droplet of the nerve agents could be fatal to an individual, and the shells theoretically contain enough to kill millions of people.

Inside the warehouses, shells are stored on wooden racks, looking much like wine bottles in a dark cellar. Paul L. McNelly, program manager for the chemical weapons elimination program of the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said the agents inside the shells are in "pristine condition."

Nunn expressed concern that the shells could be a target for terrorists. While the perimeter of the base has been reinforced, there are many shells to track and a few might be smuggled out in a suitcase. "I think it would be extremely hard to know if one was missing," he said. Noting estimates that it may take another five or 10 years to destroy the shells, Nunn added, "I don't think we have that much time."

The weapons here make up just 13 percent of Russia's overall declared chemical weapons stockpile of 40,000 tons in seven storage facilities. Under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia and the United States, which had the biggest Cold War arsenals, have until 2012 to destroy them.

Rogelio Pfirter, head of the Geneva-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said this month that Russia had destroyed 22 percent of its weapons and that the United States had eliminated 46 percent.

In the years after the Soviet collapse in 1991, the problem of cleaning up such depots seemed urgent. Now, liquidating the weapons of the Cold War seems just as complicated as building them was in another age.

Progress at Shchuchye has been painstaking. The first agreements to neutralize the agents here were signed in 1996. But Russia's economy crashed in 1998, and improvements promised by the Russian government to schools and services around the facility were not made. The project then stalled for several years. Construction finally got underway in 2003.

When complete, the facility will be able to destroy 1,700 tons of agent a year. The warehouses here contain 5,400 tons. If the assembly lines begin working in 2008, destruction of just the shells in this one location could take until 2011, or two decades after the Soviet collapse.

When ready, the shells are to be drilled and the nerve agents drained, neutralized and mixed with bitumen, then buried in caskets on the site. The shells are to be cut up into scrap.

By some accounts, local people still feel some dissatisfaction. Green Cross International, an environmental group founded and chaired by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, said in a report that nearby residents held a demonstration in June to demand social benefits that the government had pledged to give them.

Russia, now rich with oil revenue, has signed a new agreement in which it pledged to pay the excess if costs for the program at large exceed the U.S. budget. Other countries -- including Canada, Britain, the Czech Republic, Italy, Norway and Switzerland -- are also making contributions. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S.-based group that Nunn co-chairs, gave $1 million to help construct a bridge for a rail line that will carry shells to the destruction facility.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company