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Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
CW Destruction Site Begins Operation

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Daniel Arnaudo

On March 5, the chemical weapons destruction plant at Shchuch'ye in Russia began operating. The plant is a key component of Russia's push to destroy its entire stockpile of agents by 2012, as mandated by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Other facilities at Gorny, Kambarka, Leonidovka, and Maradykovsky have already destroyed around 30 percent of Russia's total stockpile of chemical agents, which, at more than 40,000 tons, is the world's largest.

Nonetheless, that leaves around two-thirds of the arsenal left to be destroyed in less than half the time that it took for Russia to destroy the first third. In an op-ed in the Moscow Times March 11, Rogelio Pfirter, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is charged with implementing the CWC, lauded Russia for its efforts to fulfill its pledge. He also said that he is confident that Russia and other chemical weapons states will "do their utmost to comply with their obligation to completely eliminate their stockpiles by the given deadlines." Still, many experts are skeptical that Russia will meet the 2012 stockpile destruction goal.

The United States has also had problems meeting the 2012 CWC deadline to the point where Congress has mandated that its deadline for the complete destruction of the U.S. chemical arsenal is now 2017. Three U.S. destruction facilities have completed their work, but another four are only expected to be finished between 2015 and 2017. (See ACT, December 2008.)

On March 10, Pfirter met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss Russia's progress on meeting CWC deadlines. Although a press briefing on the subject was called off at the last minute, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that there was a high level of cooperation between the OPCW and Russia and that their country was "striving to deal with existing problems in a constructive vein meeting the spirit of the convention."

Besides being an important component of Russia's chemical weapons destruction efforts, Shchuch'ye has been a major focus of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, run by the Department of Defense. The program has poured more than $1 billion into the creation of a chemical weapons destruction facility there. The site contains some of the country's most dangerous and portable nerve agents, such as sarin, soman, and Russian VX, and holds roughly one-seventh of the Russian chemical arsenal. The Defense Department provided manpower and technical expertise in the form of advisers from the U.S. government and licensed contractors overseen by the Parsons Corporation to construct a facility on site.

Because of cost overruns, disagreements with the Russian government, and problems with local subcontractors, the project was delayed and then finished by Russian businesses when the Bush administration essentially halted funding by allocating only a million dollars per year for the project in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. (See ACT, May 2007.)

There are two chemical weapons destruction facilities at Shchuch'ye. The first, which just became operational, was built by the Russians. A second was started by the United States and is still being finished by Russian subcontractors. Much of the equipment that was to be used in the second plant was transferred to the now completed Russian facility after the problems, but still must be tested with simulant and live agents before the process of disabling and destroying weapons can begin.

Russia also faces a budget crunch because of the declining state of the world economy. Valery Kapashin, the head of the Federal Department for the Safe Storage and Disposal of Chemical Armaments, said Feb. 26 that the budget for chemical weapons destruction would be cut 3-15 percent this year. He added that if the cuts exceed 15 percent, Russia would not be able to fulfill its commitments under the CWC.