The road to the tiny village of Shchuch'ye in Russia's Kurgan Oblast is long, narrow, and straight, a tedious three-hour ride from the capital city of Kurgan to the east, or two hours from Chelyabinsk to the west. The Kurgan region is best known for its agricultural products, Chelyabinsk for its many nuclear-related accidents; sitting just north of Kazakhstan on the steppes of Siberia, some 1,500 miles southeast from Moscow, the area is certainly far from most tourist routes.
Yet, in July 1994, there we were, visiting Shchuch'ye (pronounced "SHOO-she") for an official U.S. government on-site inspection of a formerly top-secret chemical weapons stockpile. Over the past decade, and especially over the last year, this unknown village of log cabins and muddy roads has suddenly gained notoriety as one of the most important sites worldwide for nonproliferation and counterterrorism efforts.
It was hot and muggy. Mosquitoes the size of bumble-bees swarmed around our group of a dozen Americans and Russians. We were still recovering from the traditional rounds of vodka toasts the night before at the so-called "officers' club" on the military base. Thus, a bit groggy, we prepared for a full day of inspections of the chemical weapons stockpile: 5,400 tons of nerve agent housed in dozens of warehouses in the middle of a nondescript forest of pine and birch trees.
After stripping down naked, undergoing a cursory medical examination, and dressing again in green Russian long-underwear, Army fatigues, floppy black leather boots, and a small Russian baseball cap, the group was fitted with gas masks and weathered a tear gas test. We then climbed into an antiquated Russian Army bus and set off for the stockpiles, just a few hundred yards down the road. We were quite unprepared for what was waiting for us.
The first series of above-ground warehouses, old and weather-beaten with holes in the roof and broken windows, housed tens of thousands of multi-caliber artillery shells filled with deadly VX nerve agent. This is one of the newest chemical agents, a molecule of which can kill humans and animals in several minutes. The shells were stocked in what looked like wine racks, some filled, some half-filled, some empty, but all wall-to-wall in each large warehouse. The weapons were shiny and appeared battlefield-ready.
We inquired of the Russian general how he kept track of the weapons, given that there seemed to be no inventory plans. He replied confidently that "we just keep the doors locked." Unfortunately, the entrance to the buildings was closest to a swinging barndoor, locked with a large bicycle padlock. This was not Fort Knox by any stretch of the imagination, nor did it even vaguely resemble U.S. chemical weapon storage: underground bunkers with one-ton concrete blocks blocking the front doors.
The next set of warehouses contained something even more ominous: two-meter-long missile warheads, designed for mating with Russian frog and scud short-range missiles, like we had just seen Iraq launch at Israeli and U.S. forces in the Gulf War. Each warhead contained hundreds of kilograms of nerve agent, sufficient to annihilate a whole city. They were sitting on individual railroad dollies, ready to be rolled out and attached to each other on the rail line which ran directly through the middle of the Shchuch'ye base.
I had worked in the field of nonproliferation and counterterrorism for a decade or more at the time, but this 1994 inspection brought home the stark realization that dedicated terrorist organizations, or corrupt or starving Russian troops, might obtain access to powerful weapons of mass destruction without much difficulty. When I asked one of our Russian escorts, an Army private, when he was last paid, he replied that "we're delighted that you're here because the commanding officer just paid us three of our six months' back pay in order for us to perform better for the international inspection." And when we inquired about perimeter security, he replied that they patrolled "regularly," perhaps once or twice daily.
I returned to Washington, dc that week with a renewed dedication to improve security around such vulnerable bases and also to advocate for the safe and sound destruction of such dangerous and obsolete Cold War stockpiles before they wound up in the hands of national or subnational terrorist groups. Since September 11th, this challenge looms much larger and more urgent to us all.
A Public Hearing
Fast forward three years to the summer of 1997, once again in the village of Shchuch'ye. I was helping manage, along with my Green Cross Russia and Green Cross Switzerland colleagues, a public hearing in the town hall concerning the future destruction of the 5,400 tons of nerve agent nearby. We had just flown three hours from Moscow, spent a night in Kurgan, and driven three hours by bus to the town square. As we pulled up to the town hall, we noticed that the small square outside was filled with a thousand or more local people, some with protest signs. The hall itself was packed with another three hundred citizens, all anxious to hear what could affect their lives in the next few years, for the better or for the worse.
The U.S. and Russian defense ministries had decided that the Shchuch'ye stockpile, one of the largest, newest, most battlefield-ready, and most threatened by terrorist infiltration from the "Stans" (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, et al.) to the south, would be the top priority for foreign support and construction of a demilitarization facility. Yet few in the American delegation were ready for the onslaught of tough questions and demands from the local community and for the deep-seated mistrust which permeated the day-long discussion.
As soon as we stepped off the bus, local peasants posed a variety of questions which illustrated well their level of frustration, suspicion, and misinformation. "Why are you Americans here?" "Are you bringing your nuclear weapons here to be destroyed?" "Are you testing experimental technology on us?" "Will you be destroying your American chemical weapons here in order to prevent public health and environmental damage in your own backyards?" And one of the most basic and common questions "How will we benefit from a destruction facility here?" These immediate issues, followed by our daylong public hearing, clearly made the point that the local community would have to be deeply involved in the planning process. From that day forward we began a very proactive public outreach and involvement effort in order to build consensus around a process of weapons destruction beset with many potential impacts, both positive and negative, for the local villages of the Kurgan Oblast.
Four years later, the summer of 2001, I found myself once again on the road to Shchuch'ye, this time to celebrate "International Day," an occasion we had helped organize along with the Russian Munitions Agency, the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and the American contractor, Parsons. Over a hundred acres of land had been cleared as the site for the new nerve agent destruction facility and some 250 people American and Russian officials, Global Green/Green Cross representatives, press, and local citizens were all gathering to celebrate the dozen nations, including the European Union, which had agreed to help fund the project. The United States had committed $880 million over a ten-year time period to the estimated project cost of $1.6 billion. The remaining funds would be made up from European allies and Russia.
Every nation was represented at the podium and the regional Russian military band played each national anthem as the country's flag was raised at the site. Seven years after my first on-site inspection at this dangerous chemical weapons stockpile, it was apparent that progress was being made and that these artillery shells and missile warheads would be dismantled in the coming few years.
Some date the end of the Cold War to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Since that time, American, Russian, and European military forces have undergone large drawdowns in military troops and bases. U.S. active-duty forces, for example, peaked during the Vietnam War at some 4.8 million men and women. Today they stand at about 1.3 million. Over the past decade the U.S. has closed almost four hundred military bases through a series of closures and realignments. Unfortunately, as the military shrinks, their weapons don't vanish. The demise of Cold War confrontations and arms races has left us with formidable and expensive challenges: socio-economic transitions, environmental cleanups, and weapons demilitarization. In the U.S. alone there are some 30,000 contaminated sites, poisoned with everything from petroleum products to heavy metals.
Weapons stockpiles are no less formidable. Few people realize that most weapons are never fired, and that if fired, they are usually fired on American soil in war games and firing practice. On average, the U.S. must now destroy 100,000 tons of obsolete weapons annually, about twenty percent of the existing ammunition stockpile. We also have unexploded weapons on two million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, including fifteen national wildlife refuges and some nine hundred former defense sites. No one even knows what the cleanup challenge will be for active firing ranges.
Of course, these figures don't even touch on the mother lode of chemical weapons. 70,000 tons of chemical weapons in the U.S. and Russia must be carefully disassembled and demilitarized. Russia has declared 40,000 tons of chemical weapons at seven sites, of which Shchuch'ye is the easternmost site. The U.S. has declared 31,500 tons at nine sites. Two other nations India and South Korea have also declared smaller stockpiles, and there are a number of other countries North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Israel, amongst others which are suspected of harboring chemical weapons.
Most of the world, 145 nations, have now signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the research, development, deployment, and use of all chemical weapons. The four declared chemical weapons possessors are obliged under the Convention to abolish their arsenals by 2007. Yet eliminating these weapons has been far from cheap or easy. Chemical weapons only prove easy in their symbolism; for they ably demonstrate how challenging the cleanup of Cold War legacies has become and how expensive that cleanup will be. Nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and war prevention all form their foundations on eliminating chemical weapons the world over.
A weapons engineer once quipped to me that "building weapons is easy; it's taking them apart that's difficult." This has certainly proven to be true in the case of chemical weapons arsenals. It is painfully clear that no silver bullet exists to destroy these arsenals. As such, a toolbox of options is needed to provide a range of choices for states and local communities.
Technology choice is the greatest challenge. A chemical weapon, in many instances, is much more than metal casing and mustard or nerve agent. It may contain explosives "energetics," in the business to detonate the weapon and spread its deadly cargo over great distances. It may also include propellant to thrust it over long ranges. In addition, manufacturing may have introduced other contaminants such as pcbs and heavy metals which further complicate any destruction process.
Destroying a weapon designed to kill quickly, massively, and indiscriminately also understandably raises considerable concerns amongst local populations, environmental officials, and public health agencies. These concerns have led to great scrutiny over technology options by both American and Russian officials. Over fifteen years ago, the U.S. Army decided that incineration was the safest process, yet this has met with fierce criticism from local officials as well as from environmental groups. The Russians, when offered an American-designed incinerator for the Shchuch'ye stockpile during my 1994 visit, rejected it as "too costly, too high maintenance, and too dangerous."
Nonetheless, the U.S. has constructed five incinerators in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon, Utah, and on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Two of these Johnston Atoll and Utah have burned over 7,500 tons of weapons to date. While Johnston Atoll has recently finished destroying chemical weapons secretly moved from Okinawa and Germany, the incinerator there will be shut down in the coming year. The Army plans to start up the incinerators at the first three sites above in the near future.
The remaining four U.S. sites Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland will all likely operate non-incineration alternative technologies. Many environmentalists, state officials, and public health experts see these as more controllable and benign, allowing all emissions gaseous, liquid, and solid to be tested before release. One of the main concerns over incineration is that once pollutants exit the smokestack, it's too late to stop them from damaging the surrounding land and people.
Unfortunately, Russia has not even taken these steps. At present, the Russians have been unable to destroy a single chemical weapon. The Russian Munitions Agency has chosen to use neutralization technologies, which mixes chemical agent with hot water or other reagent. The result: a toxic substance that requires further treatment. At Shchuch'ye, they combine this liquid product with asphalt, to be stored for years in a toxic waste site. Local concerns have been raised as to whether this might leach into the groundwater. Equally troubling are questions of who will be responsible for maintenance and security.
These questions fold nicely into the problems of money. The U.S. program was first estimated at some $2 billion total. Today estimates have risen to $24 billion and there appears to be no end in sight. On the Russian side, rough estimates are $6 - 10 billion, but this may also increase over time.
While the U.S. defence budget annually includes about $1 billion for chemical weapons destruction, the Russian budget has been much more meager $25 100 million annually, insufficient to fund their program. The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, established a decade ago, has been key in helping support destruction of Russian weapons of mass destruction. The program has authorized over $4 billion in programs over this decade, of which about $250 million has been committed to chemical weapons destruction. In addition, allied support has crucially provided $150 million in payments and pledges.
Public involvement has also been a major challenge in weapons destruction. The initial approach of both Russian and American militaries was to follow the old adage, "decide, announce, defend." From the Army's point of view, chemical weapons destruction was too important, too classified, and too dangerous to leave open to much public scrutiny. From the public's point of view, it was likewise too important, too classified, and too dangerous to totally trust that the military would do the right thing.
Thus, much local opposition surfaced over ten years ago in both countries. In the U.S., for example, the original plan was to construct a few centrally located incinerators and to transport the weapons to the facilities. Congress, once this was briefed on Capitol Hill, promptly banned transportation as too risky. A few years later two states, Colorado and Kentucky, banned any construction until adequate research was finished.
In Russia, the first central destruction facility in a city Chapeyevsk was prevented from opening when local factories went on strike and citizens marched to the front gates to protest their lack of involvement in the process. This was 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of "glasnost and perestroika" had begun to take hold.
The U.S. and Russia have learned their lessons the hard way. Though both countries are much more proactive in outreach and involvement activities, there remains a stark lack of information regarding certain formerly secret facilities. This is especially true given the current hypersensitivity regarding weapons security since last September.
Cold War politics remains a continuing stumbling block as well. This may come as a surprise to some readers, given that the Cold War ended well over a decade ago. But there remain old Cold Warriors in both Moscow and Washington. These are men who remain suspicious of all former enemies, Russians reluctant to engage in transparent, on-site inspections, and Americans loath to help Russia financially. The sheer difficulty in accessing military stockpile and facility sites in both Russia and the U.S. is a perfect example of this outdated thinking. These inspections are the best, and often only, way to provide visiting delegations with first-hand knowledge of the challenges and successes of weapons destruction.
Recent actions by the House Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon also point strongly to old Cold War politics undermining progress. The Committee successfully zeroed out the Clinton Administration requests for funding for Russian chemical weapons destruction in fiscal years 2000 and 2001. Not only did these efforts set the program back considerably, they also stalled construction at the Shchuch'ye site. Last summer, for a third time, certain Committee staff sought to delete the $35 million request to resurrect the program; fortunately, Congressmen John Spratt and Curt Weldon were able to sponsor an amendment that restored the funding.
Opponents of the Russian program have argued over the past three years that these nerve agent artillery shells were "too short-range" to impact U.S. security. The core of such arguments asserts that Russian stockpiles are more an environmental problem for Russia than a global security problem. Fortunately for all of us, this logic has been soundly disproven, especially considering the vulnerability of these chemical weapons stockpiles to theft and diversion. As we pointed out again and again, an American who dies from a stolen Russian chemical weapon won't care much if it's delivered by missile, truck, or suitcase; the deadly result is the same.
Just North of Clinton, IN
Today, most Americans realize that we are as vulnerable at home as anywhere in the world. But most of us don't realize just how many high-value targets exist in the U.S. and abroad. These are targets far more dangerous than the World Trade Towers or the Pentagon, and could kill millions of people if successfully struck by terrorists.
Weapons stockpiles fall into this category. Eight major chemical weapons stockpiles, situated in eight American communities, all capable of incurring incalculable damage if struck by a large bomb. Plumes of deadly gas would drift for miles downwind and kill anything in their path. Other high-value targets like natural gas tankers, nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage sites and pools, and tanker trucks offer similar dangers.
About seventy-five miles west of Indianapolis on the Illinois border sits one of the world's largest stockpiles of deadly vx nerve agent. The base, called Newport Chemical Depot, is just north of the town of Clinton, Indiana. In the middle of neatly plowed fields sits a large aboveground warehouse surrounded by barbed wire fence and a guard post. Inside are housed 1,269 tons of chemical weapons in bulk "tonne" containers, stacked like hot water tanks on their side three or four high over the area of a football field. vx is highly toxic and lethal in both liquid and vapor forms, a similar compound to what the Japanese terrorist group, "Aum Shinrikyo," used in 1995 to kill and injure thousands in the Tokyo subway.
Next door to the warehouse sits a rusting vx production plant, closed years ago, but now being cautiously dismantled. Newport is one of a few American chemical weapons arsenals with large stockpiles which before 9ž11 were unprotected from aircraft attack. Risk assessments run before the attacks seem almost rosy-eyed now. Lightning strikes, earthquakes, even helicopter accidents; no one seemed able to envision kamikaze attacks with large aircraft.
A recent request was made in Congress to consider "fast-track" destruction of these sites, actions that wouldn't compromise safety or environmental concerns. But the list of these potential targets in the U.S. and Russia remains long. So while popular fear of chemical weapons seems to perk up from time to time, especially in the wake of 9 ž 11 or an exposé article, it often fades from view just as quickly. People need to realize that this is a problem to be addressed, and solved. Are Americans digesting the fact that just one successful attack on these sites could kill thousands? The innocent people downrange of the chemical fallout plume would perish painfully and quickly. This is our Cold War legacy, a rusting warehouse just north of Clinton, Indiana; the Russians', a padlocked barn outside the village of Shchuch'ye. Envisioning a future without these risks is the first step. Doing something about them is the most important.
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