Security of Russian weapons faulted

Report warns stockpiles still remain susceptible to terrorists, rogue states

April 06, 2003|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOSCOW - Much of Russia's huge stockpile of nerve gas, weapons-grade nuclear material and biological agents has yet to be safeguarded from terrorists and so-called rogue states because Moscow will not allow U.S. experts to visit the sites to devise security improvements, a U.S. government report warns.

Russia has the world's largest storehouse of chemical weapons - 40,000 metric tons - as well as 600 metric tons of weapons-grade nuclear material, up to 25,000 nuclear warheads and an extensive biological weapons infrastructure left over from the Soviet era.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Moscow agreed with Washington that its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction should be secured against the threat of theft by terrorists or by corrupt insiders willing to sell it.

But Moscow has grown reluctant to grant the United States access to hundreds of nuclear, chemical and biological sites scattered from Russia's Arctic coast to the Kazakh border, according to a report by inspectors with the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. At some sites, the shortcomings were obvious. In one biological weapons lab, GAO inspectors found dangerous pathogens kept in rooms secured only by small padlocks and a doorjamb sealed with wax and string. At another, concrete perimeter walls were crumbling after years of neglect.

U.S.-financed improvements in security "continue to face significant resistance and lack of cooperation from the Russian government. In some areas such as securing many sites in Russia's nuclear-weapons complex, Moscow has been unwilling to allow meaningful work to take place, despite years of U.S. efforts," the report said.

The United States had hoped to improve security at all 133 buildings that store Russia's weapons-grade nuclear materials by 2008. But the U.S. Energy Department, which is performing the work, has been allowed to upgrade only 14 buildings. Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy has denied access to the others for the past two years.

A ministry spokesman said Russia was acting to protect its national security interests. He said security at sites that store weapons-grade nuclear materials was adequate and no worse than at U.S. sites that store the same material.

Defense analysts say such nuclear material is highly coveted by terrorists and criminal groups because amounts as small as 17 pounds of plutonium or 55 pounds of weapons-grade uranium can be used to build a nuclear bomb.

The report also criticized plans by the U.S. Defense Department and the Russian government to improve security at just two of the five sites where nerve gases such as VX and sarin are stored. A single drop of either is enough to kill a person.

Last summer, the Defense Department began installing new fencing, sensors, cameras and alarms at Kizner and Shchuchye, where nerve gas in small artillery shells is stored. Each shell is light enough to be carried by one person.

The Defense Department has regarded the other three sites as having lower priority because the lethal agents are stored in much larger containers. The report counters that more than two-thirds of Russia's nerve gas is stored at those sites.

Russia's chemical weapons are expected to be destroyed at a plant being built in Shchuchye. The General Accounting Office estimates it will take 40 years to eliminate them.

U.S. attempts at improving security have been least successful at biological weapons laboratories, the report said. The Soviet biological weapons program was the world's largest, employing 60,000 people at more than 50 locations. Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ended the program in 1992, but strains of anthrax, smallpox and other pathogens remain stored at dozens of sites across Russia.

The report said the United States has been allowed to improve security at only two Russian biological-weapons facilities. Russia refuses to provide an inventory of similar plants.

The major threat at biological weapons sites is the smuggling of vials of pathogens by laboratory workers, the report said. But interest among Russian officials in improving security at biological-weapons sites is low, it said.

"Officials at the Russian biological sites we visited stated that they knew their staff well, and would notice if an individual posed a security threat because laboratory staff live and work in close quarters," according to the report.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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