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Shchuchye, Russia, chemical weapons destruction plant opens

When most people talk about the legacy of the Cold War, it’s usually safe to assume they’re referring to nuclear weapons, which is understandable because the media usually depicts such references with the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Unfortunately, this forgets two of the three elements of the acronym NBC, which refers to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, and the latter two could easily claim more victims in an initial attack than their more well known partner – and without the attendant property damage and fallout. Biological or chemical agents could be deployed to wipe out or disable a population, then disperse, leaving only corpses and relatively undamaged property. The nuclear option, even in the form of something along the lines of a correctly deployed neutron bomb (still destructive, as it has a yield in the kiloton range), destroys all in its path, and leaves the unforgettable legacy of nuclear fallout for those who may survive the initial conflict.

However, the potential disadvantage of such chemical weapons, deployed as liquids and gasses, was soon discovered during World War I, when changes in the weather could see them turn on the wind and head back toward those who had launched them. The same problem does not apply in quite the same way today, as attacks can be launched from much greater distances, while careful planning and improved delivery methods can mitigate many of the adverse effects of weather.

The neutron bomb, in reality, has many drawbacks. More accurately described as an enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), and designed to release more of its energy as neutron radiation, while a standard thermonuclear weapon is designed to use this energy to increase its explosive yield. Many troops would receive fatal doses of radiation from an ERW, but many others would not be killed outright. Following a brief period of nausea, they would enter a latent or “walking ghost” phase, apparently fit and well, but dying nonetheless as their damaged cells progressively failed. They would be aware of their fate, and it has been assumed that they would react accordingly towards their opponents during the following days, and even weeks, during which they could survive and remain fit enough to fight, depending on their level of exposure.

Chemical weapons stockpiling

Although the production and stockpiling of nerve agents such as VX and sarin was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, both Russia and America had already stockpiled vast quantities of these agents in the years following the end of World War II, with Russia said to have held the world’s largest arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Although production stopped in 1987, Russia’s stockpile still was still in the order of 40,000 tonnes in 1997.

In order to address this long standing problem, a massive chemical weapons destruction plant has been constructed at Shchuchye, deep in the Ural Mountains of southern Siberia, about 1,600 km (995 miles) east of Moscow. The size of a small town, the facility covers almost 250 acres (100 ha), and has been designed to destroy some 2 million chemical weapons shells within the 25 buildings which occupy the site. The plant was built with $1 billion in aid from the US under an initiative known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme, which came into being within one year of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The US aid represent about one third of the facility’s total cost, with the remainder being provided by Russia and the EU. The plant lies about 10 miles (16 km) from the storage facility where the the shells have been secured, from where they are transported on a specially built railway.

Location

The area can be seen in some detail, courtesy of Google Maps(at the time of writing (2009), the imagery dates from 2003, so does not show the facility, but can be checked, so might, if newer imagery is ever uplopaded):

Russia has its own version of Google Maps, unfortunately, we can’t embed this offering, so you’ll have to make do with the screenshot below. Click on this link or the image below to visit the live version Russian mapping site., centred on Shchuchye. If you can’t speak Russian, but would still like to play with this mapping system, you can use a translator such as Babel Fish to convert most of the text from Russian to the language of your choice.

Shchuchye Russian chemical weapons disposal area

Shchuchye Russian chemical weapons disposal area

Dedication

The opening was attended by scientists and officials from Russia, the US, the UK, France and Canada. US Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who helped author much of the legislation that created the CTR programme, travelled to Siberia on Friday May 29, 2009, to speak at the dedication of the plant which had been decorated with red, white and blue balloons, and had a two storey high photograph of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hung on one of the building walls, however President Medvedev did not attend.

Operation

Many of the weapons to be destroyed at Shchuchye are small, and could be carried in a briefcase, but still have the potential to kill tens of thousands of people if triggered in a densely populated area. Senator Lugar said some of the shells at Shchuchye could potentially kill 80,000 people if deployed somewhere such as stadium. The median lethal dose (LD50) of VX for humans is estimated to be about 10 milligrammes by skin contact, and 30–50 milligrammes per minute per cubic metre by inhalation. Sarin is described as an extremely volatile and potent agent, which can be fatal even at very low concentrations – death may follow in as little as one minute after direct ingestion of about 0.01 milligrammes per kilogramme of body weight. One estimate has described sarin as being 500 time more toxic than cyanide.

As a signatory of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which it signed in 1993, Russia (like the US and other signatories) is obliged to eliminate its stores of Class I weapons – chemicals that have no use other than in arms, and according to the Russian Munitions Agency, about 30% of the nation’s stockpile has already been destroyed. Under the CWC,  signatories are obliged to dismantle their chemical weapons stockpiles entirely by 2012. By May 2009, Russia had destroyed 30%, half of the figure then achieved by the US (see also the American story below). Russian officials insist they are on schedule to meet this deadline, but US officials say Russia is badly behind, and predict that the Russian weapon destruction programme will be not completed before  2027. That said, the US does not claim to be doing much better, with delays and (many claims of) lack of funding leaving the US struggling towards completion of their current programme by 2017 (if it received the required funding it has requested for its disposal programme), while its projected overall completion date is 2023.

The weapons to be destroyed at Shchuchye contain a total of almost 5,460 tonnes nerve agent, including sarin and VX, which represents about 14% of the total to be destroyed. The initial capacity of the facility will be about 850 tonnes per annum, but this figure is set to double towards the end of the year, when a second plant is completed on the site.

Within the plant, the welded shells will be drilled to allow the the nerve agents contained within to be drained, after which the recovered liquid chemical will then be treated to neutralise them, and then convert them into a bitumen salt mass, a solid material which is considered to present only a mild danger. The solid material is transferred to drums, which will be placed in storage within concrete-lined subterranean bunkers, which have been constructed above the groundwater level.

Implications

In recent years, relations between the US and Russia suffered some strain, for example the conflict in Georgia. However, they now need to agree on a replacement to the START nuclear arms reduction treaty which is due to expires at the end of this year, and the completion and opening of the Shchuchye plant is seen as being a significant factor, even though the the project was reported to have been delayed for almost a year while a suitable Russian subcontractor could be found to install the necessary equipment at a reasonable cost.

The American story

We looked at the US chemical weapons disposal programme back in 2008, and since then, there have been changes to the system, not least of which is the arrival of President Obama after the Bush administration departed, so there may yet be significant changes to come to light with regard to the current programme, and we simply don’t know about them.

The US military then said it has destroyed more than half of its chemical warfare agent stockpile without harming communities near their disposal sites: “We really haven’t had a serious incident throughout the life of the program concerning chemical weapons,” said Greg Mahall, a spokesman for the US Army Chemical Materials Agency, “We’re very proud of our safety record.” To put this in context, the Defense Department had stored 31,500 tons of lethal substances including sarin, VX and mustard agent at nine locations around the continental United States and on the Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific.

The 2008 fiscal defense appropriations bill passed in 2007 required the Pentagon to confirm disposal of thousands of tons of deadly blister and nerve agents, together with their accompanying munitions, by December 30, 2017. Five of seven destruction sites constructed to carry out this task are on schedule to complete their work in advance of that date, but chemical agent neutralization facilities at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, and the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky had not even being built in 2008. The Pueblo Chemical Depot stores 2,611 tons of mustard agent contained in mortars and artillery shells, while its counterpart in Kentucky holds 523 tons of mustard, VX, and sarin nerve agents in rockets and projectiles. Together, these represent about 10% of the original US stockpile, destruction of which began in 1990. The present plan calls for disposal operations to begin at Pueblo in 2015, and be completed some five years later. The Blue Grass facility would open in 2017, and close in 2023.

Delays in the weapons disposal programme could have implications for both the US and the rest of the world. The longer they remain in existence, the greater the chance that they could become targets for terrorists looking to steal their contents, or simply trigger a disaster through the on-site release of lethal materials. The continuing possibility of chemical agent leaks and potential accidents are also a concern, and the Army expressed concerns a decade ago that chemical munitions — some of which still contain explosives and propellant — might become unstable and begin to explode in their storage bunkers. While this has never actually happened, the fear is that each passing year increases the risk arising from retaining these stocks of ageing weapons.

Stretching out the disposal schedule could add more than $3 billion to the total price tag for Blue Grass and Pueblo, bringing the cumulative cost to $8 billion, according to a June 2007 newspaper report. The overall total cost is already expected to reach $34 billion.

Protests

All the US sites operating today use incineration to destroy the chemical agents and munitions. Opponents have filed lawsuit against this process, and continue to question the Army’s assertion that emissions pose no threat. “If you go by their body count so far, I guess it has been a success,” said Craig Williams, head of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, which has pushed the Pentagon to use disposal technology other than incineration. “The fact is we still don’t know what is coming out of the stacks or what the long-term effect will be.”

While the opponents see incineration as an issue, it seem that those who actually live near the plants express little concern about the potential danger posed by weapons incineration. Joyce Walker, one resident near a chemical depot in Anniston, Ala, said: “I’ll be glad when it’s gone, but I don’t think about it very much.” She and other residents have not bothered to open safety gear provided by the military.

The Anniston depot has eliminated its stocks of rockets and artillery shells that contained VX and sarin nerve agents, leaving it with thousands of land mines filled with VX and mustard agent munitions still to be destroyed. “From a risk perspective to the community, over 98 percent of the risk is gone,” said site manager Timothy Garrett. “The risk with the land mines is so small it’s hard to put on a chart, and there is no risk to the community from the mustard gas.”

The Army and the Oregon Environmental Quality Department, after 11 years and three risk assessments, concluded that weapons incineration at the Umatilla Chemical Depot posed no threat to area residents, the Hermiston Herald reported yesterday. The conclusion is that “chemical weapons bad, incineration good,” according to state senior environmental toxicologist Bruce Hope. “It’s not like we’re arriving at the decision half-cocked,” he said.

A toxicologist for an environmental group disputed the finding, claiming that the facility is emitting harmful materials such as mercury and arsenic. “We have to assume that they are the worst,” said Peter deFur of Environmental Stewardship Concepts. “The primary concern is the air.”

Implications

Even eliminating its chemical weapons stockpile by 2017 would still put the US five years beyond its Chemical Weapons Convention obligations, and delaying the completion of chemical disarmament by an additional six years would tend to further undermine Washington’s authority in pressing Russia and other nations to eliminate their stockpiles, and in trying to bring additional nations into line with the various treaties and conventions relating to these weapons.

Postscript

One thing I wasn’t aware of before reading into the state of chemical weapons disposal was the existence of the Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare, which relates not only to the Cold War as discussed above, but encompasses all those who suffered in both World Wars, where agents such as mustard gas and phosgene were deployed.

This particular remembrance day is observed on April 29 each year – which is the anniversary of the date in 1997 on which the Chemical Weapons Convention was finally ratified, and came into force. A permanent memorial in The Hague symbolizes the ever-growing global will to eliminate chemical weapons, and to establish a world which is free of chemical weapons. For more than a hundred years, chemicals have been used as weapons to kill and injure en masse, in a cruel and universally condemned form of warfare which has taken millions of lives. Victims that survive such attacks can expect to suffer painful lifelong disabilities and disfigurement.

This day remember the victims of chemical warfare to honour their memory and to ensure that the torture they endured will not be forgotten.

An effective global ban on these weapons will serve as the most fitting memorial to these victims, and the scourge of chemical weapons will be lifted when all States join and implement the Chemical Weapons Convention. Today, 188 States have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention to form the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and forever renounce chemical weapons.

On April 29, 2009, UN Secrerary General Ban Ki-Moon sent a message acknowledging this day as: “an occasion to recall some of the greatest atrocities in human history, to assess our progress in preventing any recurrence, and to pledge to continue advancing this cause in the future.”

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May 31, 2009 Posted by | Cold War | , | Leave a comment

   

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