MOSCOW — Russia and the United States formally opened a plant in Siberia on Friday to destroy a huge stockpile of artillery shells filled with deadly nerve agents, more than a decade after alarmed U.S. officials first pledged to help secure and dispose of the weapons.
The 250-acre facility, built with $1 billion in U.S. aid, is said to be the largest in the world dedicated to destroying chemical munitions. Its debut represents a milestone in Russia's long, rocky partnership with the United States to safeguard and eliminate chemical, biological and nuclear arms of the former Soviet Union.
Located in the town of Shchuchye, about 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow, the plant is supposed to neutralize about 2 million shells and warheads stored nearby that are loaded with VX, sarin and soman.
The stockpile has worried U.S. officials since 1994, when an American inspection team found it in a loosely guarded complex of run-down warehouses. Just one of the shells could kill tens of thousands of people if detonated in a stadium or other crowded area.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., dramatized the potential for terrorism posed by the weapons during a visit to the complex in 1999, when he was photographed holding a briefcase with a VX-filled shell inside.
"In Washington, that photo became an important symbol of the challenge we faced," Lugar said Friday at the ceremony opening the Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility.
Paul Walker, director of Global Green USA, an affiliate of an environmental group founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that manages community outreach for the facility, said Friday's ceremony may be premature, because only one of the two main buildings in the complex has been completed.
The munitions in Shchuchye account for about 14 percent of the 40,000 tons of chemical agents declared at seven locations by Russia under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Of Russia's other chemical weapons stockpiles, work has begun at four and has been completed at two, Walker said.