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Russian opens weapons destruction plant

Russian and U.S. officials on Friday formally opened a massive plant in Siberia that is to destroy some 2 million chemical weapons shells, hailing the move as a milestone in global security and in cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

world Updated: May 29, 2009 10:45 IST

Russian and U.S. officials on Friday formally opened a massive plant in Siberia that is to destroy some 2 million chemical weapons shells, hailing the move as a milestone in global security and in cooperation between Moscow and Washington. The village-sized plant in Shchuchye, about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) east of Moscow, was largely funded by the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative that started a year after the Soviet Union's collapse. The U.S. contribution exceeds $1 billion.

"The path to peace and prosperity for both Russia and the United States depends on how we resolve the threats posed by the arsenals built to fight World War III. Thankfully that confrontation never came. But 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," U.S. Senator Dick Lugar, a Republican, said at the opening ceremonies. He is a co-author, with former Sen. Sam Nunn, of the legislation that led to the CTR.

"The United States and Russia have too much at stake and too many common interests to allow our relationship to drift toward conflict. Both of our nations have been the victim of terrorism that has deeply influenced our sense of security," he said. The weapons at Shchuchye, loaded with nerve gases including VX and sarin, have a cataclysmic potential for terrorist attacks. If set off in a tightly packed area, each could kill tens of thousands of people. Many of them are small enough to fit in a briefcase. Russia, as a signatory of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, is obliged to eliminate its vast stores of Class I weapons _ chemicals that have no use other than in arms. Moscow already has destroyed about 30 percent of its stockpile, according to the Russian Munitions Agency.

"In this context, Shchuchye is the most important facility allowing us to fulfill this task," said Viktor Khristnko, the Russian minister of industry.

But the Shchuchye facility significantly boosts destruction capacity. Russian officials claim it will allow the country to meet its treaty obligations of destroying all chemical weapons by 2012, although Lugar said that goal probably won't be met. Nonetheless, the opening _ which follows preliminary destruction work that began in March _ is significant because of the dangers posed by the weapons. Lugar said some of the shells at Shchuchye could kill 80,000 people if deployed in a stadium. The opening of the plant comes at a symbolically important time, as Russia and the United States take initial steps toward working out a successor to the START nuclear arms reduction treaty that expires at the end of this year.

The opening also comes as both countries tentatively try to repair relations that deteriorated under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.

But while the project can be seen as a model of long-term cooperation, it also underlines the frequent difficulties that the United States runs into with Russia.

Delays in opening the plant came as disagreements arose over the type of munitions to be destroyed and how to eliminate them. The U.S. General Accounting Office says the hunt for a Russian subcontractor to install equipment at a reasonable cost was alone responsible for pushing the project back a year.

"The road to this day has not been smooth. There have been delays caused by the apprehension of the U.S. Congress; bureaucratic obstruction; problems with Russian funding; and contractor disputes," Lugar said.

Nonetheless, he said, "Moscow and Washington have proven that former enemies can work together to achieve shared security benefits ... . Our policies toward one another have frequently been characterized by ambiguities and difficult choices. But this facility is testament to the fact that we can make progress on areas of collaboration that are essential to our common interests." The weapons to be destroyed at Shchuchye contain in total about 5,460 metric tons (6,000 short tons) of nerve agent including sarin and VX; in all, that's about 14 percent of the chemical weapons that Russia is committed to destroy. The initial destruction capacity is roughly 850 metric tons (935 short tons) a year, but the figure is expected to double when a second building at the complex comes into operation at the end of the year.

The welded shells are to be drilled, then drained of their deadly agents. The chemicals will be neutralized then turned into bitumen salt mass, a solid waste that is considered mildly dangerous. That waste is to be stored in drums in concrete-lined bunkers situated above the groundwater level.

The complex, which sprawls across some 250 acres (100 hectares) is about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the buildings where the shells are stored. The weapons will be transported there on a specially built railroad.