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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Town Wary of Chemical Arms Disposal Plan

MIRNY, Kirov Region -- On a closed military base, just outside this small town cut from a forest along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, sits one of the country's deadliest stockpiles of chemical weapons. Nearly 7,000 tons of chemical agents are packed inside 40,000 aerial bombs that are secured in containers made of concrete and steel.

Broken down into individual doses, that's enough agent to kill everyone on the planet.

Sometime this year, the authorities are to begin neutralizing most of the 4,000 tons of VX nerve agent in the stockpile to meet a deadline under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, which calls for 20 percent of the country's chemical arsenal to be destroyed by April 2007.

As the moment of destruction nears, some residents of Mirny and the surrounding farmlands are living in dread. But the willingness of residents to struggle against the plant defies notions about the political passivity of Russians, particularly those living in the countryside. And it illustrates how the federal government now has to contend with civic activism even in the most remote areas if an issue is sufficiently galvanizing.

The authorities have been forced to engage their adversaries in debate even though some officials, particularly in Moscow, have treated the objections of residents with contempt. Government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta even mused about how such public resistance would never have been tolerated in Soviet times. Local residents learned of what was on their doorstep only after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Echoing the criticism of some Russian and international specialists, many citizens here fear that the military is rushing forward with an untested method of destruction. The authorities are not prepared, they contend, for a serious accident, which could have untold consequences for the 4,000 people of Mirny and tens of thousands more living in two surrounding districts.

Officials are "in a hurry and they're using a technology that has never been tried before," said Tatyana Korolyova, a schoolteacher in Mirny, which means peaceful. "Life is cheap in Russia. People are very afraid that we will be betrayed."

This is a critical year for Russia under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which aims to achieve the complete destruction of the weapons worldwide by 2012. Russia and the United States have the largest arsenals. So far, Russia has destroyed just 1 percent of its stockpile, at seven sites -- compared with 35 percent at nine sites in the United States.

Plans call for the bombs stored at the Maradykovsky facility outside this town to be moved by hand from their storage places to an adjacent destruction building, which is under construction. There, workers will cut off the tops of the bombs, pour water containing neutralizing additives on the VX, then reseal the bombs.

In three months, officials say, the mixture inside the bombs prompts a slow reaction and leaves a residue that has low toxicity. "In reality, it will be fast," said Mikhail Manin, a former military officer and the senior official overseeing the destruction process in Kirov, the regional capital. "We believe it's more reliable than other methods."

Two destruction plants, Kambarka in the Ural Mountains region and Maradykovsky here, 60 kilometers southwest of Kirov, are meant to begin operation in 2006. The Kambarka facility, which holds lewisite, a blistering agent that contains arsenic, is scheduled to start March 1, after several delays.

Most of the U.S. plants underwent an 18-month testing period of an automated method of destruction, according to Paul Walker, legacy program director at Global Green USA. It is the American affiliate of Green Cross International, an organization founded by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to address the environmental consequences of war and conflict.

Despite the lengthy preparation in the United States, accidents occurred. "In a few cases, there were explosions that damaged the robots," Walker said.

In Russia there will be very little, if any, time for testing if the April 2007 deadline is to be met. "People are concerned over safety and spillage, especially for the workers," Walker said.

"We're all really hopeful, even though we remain deeply concerned over the safety and the efficacy of an unproven technology."

Lev Fyodorov, a scientist, activist and president of the Union for Chemical Safety, contends that the water-based neutralization of the bombs has not been properly tested. His group fears that the resealed bombs could rupture from the internal pressure of the reaction between the agent and the water-based solution.

"From physics we know that in each container for liquid like this, 10 percent of the volume should be left for expansion," he said. "They are going to pour 7 percent and leave only 3 percent for 100 days. It's dangerous."

The authorities, however, express confidence that their method has been well tested, including by independent experts. "We examined about 50 different technologies and individual proposals," Viktor Petrunin, general director of State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, told Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

Officials point out that critics such as Fyodorov predicted all kinds of calamities when work began at the country's first chemical destruction site, in Gorny in the Saratov region, but nothing adverse happened. There, however, a different method was used to neutralize lewisite and mustard gas.

"We've tried to have a real dialogue with people like Fyodorov, but they seem more interested in stirring up trouble," Manin said.

Officials said they had planned for accidents and that they would have an alarm and evacuation plan in place by March. All households in the area are being supplied with gas masks. Studies are underway to measure any changes in the environment once work begins.

"People will be told where to go depending on the wind," said Viktor Feofanov, head of the Department for Civil Defense and Fire Security in the Kirov region. "We have done a lot of training with the population and the population will know what routes to take."

"Mirny is very calm," said Yevgeny Yudintsev, the town's mayor.

In random interviews across the region, however, few seemed so calm. "Everyone is nervous," said Anatoly Gulin, a local businessman.

"Please stop this," said Galina Bagaiyeva, a music teacher.

Local activists said that if officials were so confident of public opinion, they would not have fought a long legal battle to prevent a district-wide referendum on the location of the destruction plant. The Supreme Court in 2001 rejected the right of local citizens to demand a vote on the issue.

Late last year, in their final gambit, opponents of the plant organized a letter-writing campaign to the Kremlin in an attempt to get President Vladimir Putin to intervene.

"This is very dangerous," wrote Svetlana Mysova, 12, who said her entire school wrote to Putin.

Mysova got a response that she said was "humiliating." Rossiiskaya Gazeta reprinted excerpts from the letters, including hers, with some snide commentary.

Opponents of the plant say they recognize the need to destroy the weapons, but wanted the destruction site moved at least 10 kilometers away from Mirny. It currently lies about 2 kilometers away.

"Safety is our first concern -- not deadlines," Manin said.

"Nothing will happen until everything is ready and we're absolutely confident. This will be a safe operation."