By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 30, 2009
MOSCOW, May 29 -- Russia and the United States formally opened on Friday a plant in Siberia to destroy a huge stockpile of artillery shells filled with deadly nerve agents, more than a decade after alarmed U.S. officials first pledged to help secure and dispose of the weapons.
The 250-acre facility, built with $1 billion in U.S. aid, is said to be the largest in the world dedicated to destroying chemical munitions. Its debut represents a milestone in Russia's long, rocky partnership with the United States to safeguard and eliminate the arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear arms the former Soviet Union produced.
Located in the town of Shchuchye, about 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow near the border with Kazakhstan, the plant is supposed to neutralize about 2 million shells and warheads stored nearby that are loaded with VX, sarin and soman.
The stockpile has worried U.S. officials since 1994, when an American inspection team found it in a loosely guarded complex of run-down warehouses. Just one of the shells could kill tens of thousands of people if detonated in a stadium or other crowded area.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) dramatized the potential for terrorism posed by the weapons during a visit to the complex in 1999, when he was photographed holding a briefcase with a VX-filled shell inside.
"In Washington, that photo became an important symbol of the challenge we faced," Lugar said Friday at the ceremony opening the Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility. "Today, we must ensure that the weapons are never used and never fall into the hands of those who would do harm to us or others," he said.
U.S. and Russian officials began discussing destroying the stockpile in the early 1990s as part of an effort launched by Lugar and then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to help the countries of the former Soviet Union clean up weapons of mass destruction left after the Cold War.
But cost overruns, bureaucratic obstacles and contracting disputes repeatedly delayed the project, the largest in the Nunn-Lugar program. Congressional resistance to U.S. funding mounted as the Russian economy recovered in recent years, and other Western countries have contributed more than $200 million to the facility. Russia says it has spent more than $250 million.
The plant began preliminary operations in March using a process that involves drilling a hole in each shell, draining the nerve agents and neutralizing them with other chemicals.
But Lev Fyodorov, president of the Russian Union for Chemical Safety, said officials have not fully addressed local residents' safety concerns. A reservoir to collect and test water for contamination has not been built, the air-monitoring stations are not accurate enough and emergency procedures are insufficient, he said.
Paul Walker, director of Global Green USA, an affiliate of an environmental group founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that manages community outreach for the facility, said Friday's ceremony may be premature, because only one of the two main buildings in the complex has been completed.
Walker urged Congress to appropriate more money to ensure the facility is finished, maintain U.S. oversight and restore funding for his organization's work with local residents, which has been cut.
Andy Fisher, Lugar's spokesman, said Russia is now responsible for financing and operating the facility. "If assistance from outside partners was requested, I'm sure it would be considered," he said.
The munitions in Shchuchye account for about 14 percent of the 40,000 tons of chemical agents declared at seven locations by Russia under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. It could take years to destroy them all, even with the new facility working at full capacity.
Of Russia's other chemical weapons stockpiles, work has begun at four and has been completed at two, Walker said. But plants remain incomplete at two sites, including one in the eastern region of Udmurtia with shells like those in Shchuchye that can be carried by hand.
Under the 1997 treaty, Russia and the United States are required to destroy their chemical weapons by 2012. Officials say both countries are unlikely to meet that deadline.