MOSCOW – Russia and the United States formally opened a plant Friday 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.”
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.
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.