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Thousands of Sites Could be Altered to Produce Chemical Weapons, Expert Says
Thousands of chemical factories spread across the planet could be reconfigured to produce chemical weapons, Interfax quoted a Russian scientist as saying last week (see GSN, Aug. 27, 2010).
"Numerous research centers across the globe annually synthesize hundreds of new toxic substances, among them highly toxic substances with unusually harmful effects," said Alexander Gorbovsky, a member of the International Scientific Advisory Board for Sea Dumped Chemical Weapons.
"All these substances are absent from the [Chemical Weapon Convention] list, which makes them exempt from control," he said in an interview with the Izvestia newspaper. "Certainly, the majority of such substances cannot be used for making chemical weapons. But chemical plants have production lines, which may rapidly start producing war gases if necessary."
Gorbovsky called for the convention to be routinely revisited to ensure that the list of covered materials is kept up to date.
"It is necessary to update the list of chemical plants subject to inspections and to broaden the inspection capacity of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- we can check no more than 100 sites annually so far, and the world has tens of thousands of sites," the expert said (Interfax, March 1).
Gorbovsky said Russia is expected to have destroyed roughly 60 percent of its 40,000 metric-ton stock of chemical warfare materials when the CWC weapons destruction deadline expires at the end of April, Izvestia reported.
Moscow previously received a five-year extension by member states to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from the original 2007 end date set by the convention. However, the extra time was still not enough for Russia to finish eliminating its chemical arsenal (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2011).
Gorbovsky said this was largely due to the amount of time required to destroy stockpiled sarin and soman nerve agents.
"Sarin and soman are neuroparalytic agents. In case of incautious handling of such ammunition a cloud of poisonous vapors appears in the air instantaneously," the expert said. "That is why their liquidation requires increased cautiousness because any breach of the technology may lead to catastrophe."
In September 2010, four personnel at the chemical destruction facility in the Kirov region exhibited symptoms of soman poisoning. Though a true disaster was skirted, the incident required a rethinking of procedures for destroying the material, he said.
There are presently several thousand sarin- and soman-filled munitions waiting to be eliminated in Russia. An advanced facility that would dismantle the weapons is under construction in Kizner in the Udmurtia region, according to Gorbovsky. "But even with its assistance we will be able to get rid of all projectiles not earlier than between 2017 and 2019."
While explaining Russia's lag in chemical agent destruction, Gorbovsky seemed to criticize similar efforts in the United States, where total chemical arsenal elimination is not forecasted to be complete before 2021.
The United States has eliminated 90 percent of its chemical arsenal, and disposal plants are being built in storage depots in Colorado and Kentucky that hold the final 10 percent -- more than 3,100 tons of mustard and nerve agents, along with related munitions.
The Kentucky stockpile is expected to be the last to be destroyed (see GSN, Feb. 15).
"I think there are no technological reasons for this and there is artificial drawing out to parry the postponement of the deadline for liquidation of chemical weapons in Russia," Gorbovsky speculated.
Though Russia and the United States, as well as Libya, will all miss the CWC destruction deadline, none of the countries are anticipated to be penalized. The 41-nation OPCW Executive Council last year instead called for Moscow, Washington and Tripoli to increase their reporting of chemical agent destruction progress and to establish associated transparency measures.
March 12, 2013
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