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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Surplus Weapons Stack Up to Potential Disaster

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Russian Army cannot afford enough bread to feed its soldiers. The Defense Ministry cannot find the funds to pay its bills. Fighter planes lack gasoline. Troops lack winter coats. There's no money for shoes, for butter, for housing.

So it's not surprising that the Russian military cannot afford to dismantle safely the uncounted tons of surplus weapons scattered around this stately city.

Huge stacks of sea mines and bullets, hand grenades and bombs, shells and explosives have piled up in three defense depots near St. Petersburg. Many were dragged here when Russian troops pulled out of Eastern Europe. More are due to arrive from shut-down Russian bases in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

From 3-ton bombs to vintage World War II guns, the munitions have been deemed too clunky to use in battle. But they remain potent killing devices. And the impoverished Russian military can do little except stash them in crammed warehouses -- where, experts warn, a minor mishap could spell catastrophe.

"A shell could suddenly fall and explode," said Alexei Fedotov, president of the St. Petersburg Engineering Academy. "A mouse could run through the shelves and knock something down." He added: "If an accident happened, it could all blow up. Fire could engulf the entire city."

Scientists who have examined the munitions around St. Petersburg say they have been stored with reasonable care. Yet they well remember May 14, 1994, when a Pacific Fleet bomb storage depot exploded in a blaze that shook the earth almost 100 kilometers away. Although no one died, shattered glass injured several residents of a nearby town; thousands fled their homes in terror.

With St. Petersburg's nuclear power plant less than 14 kilometers from a large weapons cache, specialists worry that a freak accident or human blunder could endanger the city. A slap of lightning slamming into a railroad car full of explosives could touch off an enormous blast. A cigarette butt flicked into a pile of weapons could spark a disastrous fire. Even a car crash on a nearby highway could send flames ripping through trees and into an arms depot.

"We definitely have a problem here," said Yury Shevchuck of the Green Cross environmental organization. "The explosives are dangerous just lying there. We need to take care of them. Quickly."

The military's first strategy was to get rid of surplus weapons on the cheap -- by detonating them. But planned explosions last summer shot noxious fumes into the air and blew out a window from a nearby crematory. Environmentalists hollered about potential environmental pollution. So the regional government ordered the detonations stopped.

St. Petersburg officials now hope to dismantle the weapons by less violent means, then recycle the scrap metal and explosives.

Theoretically, weapons can be transformed into commercial products -- everything from fireworks to dyes to insect repellents. And, indeed, the military has converted tons of surplus explosives into harmless civilian goods. But the work is expensive, requiring special equipment and training.

The military does not have enough money to speedily process the weapons cache. And no one else seems able to help.

There's no money for the project in the draft city budget. And none, it seems, in the federal treasury. No money to buy dismantling equipment. No money to keep the arsenals safe until explosives can be disarmed. Military warehouses are so jammed that many surplus bombs and shells remain piled in the railroad cars that toted them to St. Petersburg.

"They tell me we cannot expand [the arsenal] because we are next to a nuclear power station," Navy Captain First Rank Vyacheslav Khokhlov complained to the Russian daily newspaper Trud. But "we are allowed to stuff the warehouses to the limit and keep the ammunition under open skies. ... Where on earth is the logic?"