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The Guardian (UK)
31 January 2003
Open arms
The vast and unguarded stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union pose a far greater threat than Iraq
By Richard Norton-Taylor
Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor.

As George Bush and Tony Blair prepare for war against Iraq with the declared intention of ridding that country of weapons of mass destruction, a much greater threat lies elsewhere. UN inspectors are on the ground in Iraq looking for hidden nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, yet huge quantities are piling up in Russia, out in the open, without any effective supervision.

This was the message from a recent conference in London entitled "Preventing catastrophic terrorism". Sam Nunn, former Democrat senator and one of the conference chairmen, described the threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as the gravest danger in the world today. Preventing their spread, he said, should be the "central organising security principle for the 21st century".

Such weapons are more likely to be used by terrorists than so-called "rogue states", he warned. "If terrorists gain access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, they can destroy lives, destabilise economies and change history."

Yet terrorists are more likely to get their hands on them, not by being given them by states or governments, but by stealing them or buying them on the open market. The real danger, said Nunn, came from what he called the "private sector", including the US. He pointed out that most laboratories contain dangerous material, yet they are not subjected to any rules or standards.

The focus of the London conference, organised by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies and bringing together experts from 15 thinktanks around the world, was Russia. There, more than 20,000 nuclear warheads are sitting in 120 separate nuclear weapons storage sites. Hundreds of tons of bomb-making equipment are dispersed throughout Russia's network of nuclear facilities, which employ almost a million people.

Nearly two million rounds of nerve agents are housed in a decaying chemical weapons store at Shchuchye in Russia's Kurgan region. The artillery shells are small enough to fit in a briefcase and each one has enough lethal doses to kill 100,000 people. The store's roof is leaking and it is built on marshland.

None of Russia's stocks of nerve agents has been destroyed and its former biological weapons programme remains closed to outsiders. According to the latest official estimates, Russia's stockpile of chemical weapons amounts to 40,000 tons, the bulk consisting of organophosphorus nerve agents - sarin, soman and VX. Some 120 nuclear submarines and 280 nuclear reactors are waiting to be dismantled.

The physical protection against theft or seizure of biological pathogens in a number of the sites in which they are stored is inadequate, warns a four-volume report drawn up by the CSIS. According to Nunn, haggling in Congress is blocking US support to secure the Shchuchye store.

Over the past decade, according to the International Atomic Energy Authority, there have been 18 incidents involving the seizure of stolen highly enriched uranium or plutonium. They included a foiled attempt by Russian workers at one nuclear weapons facility in 1998 to steal enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb. According to the Russian authorities, terrorists may have conducted at least two surveillance missions of nuclear warhead storage sites in the past year.

Thousands of Russian weapons scientists and technicians are unemployed and there are plans to lay off many more. These people present an additional threat - short of money, their knowledge could be useful (and dangerous) on the open market.

The report offers a solution. "The huge pool of underemployed Russian mathematicians and physi cists," it suggests, "could be turned into high-end computer programmers, ideal for developing complicated programmes for the future, like air control systems to handle the huge increase in aviation traffic. Russia could become an offshore programming powerhouse like India, whose software exports now amount to $7bn a year."

The report notes, too, that the Russian government identified biotechnology as a target industry for the 21st century. This could provide a "commercial platform" for former biological weapons experts, who could also help to address the critical gaps in healthcare, and support the development of innovative medical technologies and products. "Similar efforts to develop novel laser applications, nanotechnologies, fuel cells and other cutting-edge technologies should be explored," adds the report.

The conference proposed a plan of action, including turning into actual financial commitments last year's pledge by the G8 group of industrialised countries to earmark $20bn over the next decade to secure the stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons built up over decades by the former Soviet Union.

The problem, it was concluded, should be seen as a global one, since the stockpiles pose dangers not just for Russia, but for the entire world. The potential threat posed by Russia's weapons of mass destruction puts into context the threat posed by Iraq, especially given the lack of evidence - despite claims made by George Bush and Tony Blair - of links between the Baghdad regime and al-Qaida.

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