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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 17:13 GMT
Analysis: Threat from weapon stockpiles
Russian SS19 ballistic missile
Work to destroy missiles is behind schedule
By BBC News Online's Tom Housden

Over the last decade, America is thought to have spent several billion dollars on securing the former Soviet Union's vast arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

But some of the weapons stocks remain unaccounted for.

The 11 September attacks and anthrax outbreaks have rekindled fears that some may have fallen into the wrong hands.


A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's nuclear complex is largely intact, vastly oversized and overstaffed

Siegfried Heckler, US scientist
Ten years ago the Nunn-Lugar agreement was drawn up as part of a series of US-Russian initiatives aimed at safeguarding weapons of mass destruction amid the political chaos and instability which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who co-authored the legislation, admits that work to secure the biological and chemical stockpiles remains far from complete, while the safe disposal of nuclear weapons material is difficult.

There is also concern that impoverished or disaffected Russian scientists may decide to export their knowledge - and may not be too scrupulous about who they work for.

Complacency

Prior to the 11 September attacks on America, US backing for the schemes seemed to be waning amid a backdrop of disorganisation and growing mutual distrust.

Former Soviet arsenal
7-800 tons of weapons-grade Uranium
150-200 tons of weapons-grade Plutonium
Estimated 16,000 stored nuclear weapons, including nuclear landmines and shells
US has spent about $5bn on non-proliferation since 1992

Siegfried Heckler, former director of the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, recently warned that work to safeguard and eliminate weapons of mass destruction was being undermined by inertia and complacency.

"Nothing really serious has happened, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's nuclear complex is largely intact, vastly oversized and overstaffed," he told the International Herald and Tribune.

Ex-Soviet republics are thought to have 7-800 tons of enriched uranium remaining from its Cold War stockpiles, with an additional 150-200 tons of enriched plutonium.

Although making large-scale nuclear weapons requires a high degree of expertise, there are fears that terrorists could scrape together sufficient supplies of radioactive material to produce a small and crude, yet devastating bomb.

These so-called dirty bombs could be manufactured by simply wrapping small amounts of radioactive material in conventional explosives.

Renewed impetus

In March this year the Bush administration delayed an initiative drawn up by the Clinton government aimed at destroying plutonium stocks and helping Russian scientists find new jobs or careers.

Russian ICBM carrier
Russia retains a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons

Now there is renewed impetus for another effort. Senator Lugar said he hopes that this year funding will be boosted for the arms reduction and control initiatives.

The US recently upgraded security at storage facilities thought to be most vulnerable to theft, but further monitoring has been restricted by the Russian Energy Department.

The US recently agreed with Uzbekistan that weapons-grade anthrax spores dumped on the island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Aral Sea will be removed and destroyed.

Vozrozhdeniye - the world's largest burial site of weapons-grade anthrax - served as a Russian biological and chemical warfare test site for more than 60 years.

Clean-up

The island was reputedly used for testing tularaemia, Q-fever, brucellosis, glanders and plague during the 1970s.

It is believed that military laboratories also tested typhus, botulinum toxin, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, smallpox, and microbial strains with high virulence and resistance to ultraviolet rays or heat.

The facility was abandoned in 1992, but a survey by US scientists in 1997 found that anthrax remained infectious in six out of 11 burial sites.

Clearing up Vozrozhdeniye is becoming more urgent given that the Aral Sea is shrinking each year. The island will soon be accessible by land.

Aral sea
The Aral Sea is becoming an arid wasteland

The US is also to assist with funding improvements to security at germ warfare research and storage facilities elsewhere in Uzbekistan.

It has also been predicted that the US Congress will also now pass a long-awaited $35m contribution towards a $200m plant to destroy Soviet chemical weapons.

See also:

30 Mar 01 | Americas
US reviews Russia aid
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