MARADYKOVSKY, Russia – Engineers covered in head-to-toe protective gear on Friday inserted neutralizing chemicals into bombs filled with a deadly nerve agent, officially starting the work of Russia's third chemical weapons destruction plant.
The plant opening accelerates Russia's campaign to eliminate the world's largest arsenal of the toxins.
The plant, about 450 miles northeast of Moscow, holds 6,900 tons of nerve agents stored in aerial bombs and missile warheads — more than 17 percent of Russia's stockpile.
Dignitaries, townspeople and journalists gathered for the formal opening ceremony at a makeshift stage outside the plant, which is ringed by three barbed-wire fences. Several miles away, a sign proclaims the road to the plant a closed zone.
"Today's event demonstrates Russia's efforts to strictly fulfill its international commitments and shows that Russia has the political will to see through to the end the process of chemical disarmament," said Viktor Kholstov, the deputy head of the Federal Industry Agency, which is in charge of the effort.
The destruction facility, on the site of one of Russia's seven former chemical weapons production plants, will become a focal point of the push to meet an April 2007 target set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for Russia to destroy 20 percent of its stockpile. To date, Russia has eliminated just 3 percent, as opposed to 39 percent destroyed by the United States, home to the second-largest stockpile.
Russia's two other destruction facilities were constructed with generous foreign funding. Construction of another plant that was to have been the biggest — Shchuchye, with chemical weapons stored in millions of artillery shells — has bogged down in disputes between Russia and the United States, the main funder.
The delays at that plant have pushed Maradykovsky onto the front line. It is the sole site to be funded 100 percent by Russia.
"The Russians a couple of years ago made a critical decision that if they were to have any chance of meeting Chemical Weapons Convention deadlines, they had to go to the easier, bulk agent sites," said Paul Walker, a weapons expert at Global Green USA, the Washington-based affiliate of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's Green Cross International environmental organization.
"I think also from a reason of national pride, they really wanted to do one site themselves and have it be successful."
Friday's ceremony had a strong dose of patriotism, opening and closing with an army band playing the national anthem. President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Volga River region, Alexander Konovalev, said the plant "is a demonstration of the growing economic might of the Russian government."
Disarmament officials did give credit to Switzerland, which recently announced it is spending some 55 million rubles, or around $2 million, on an electricity grid for the plant — the first in Russia to be destroying nerve agents as opposed to blister agents.
The bombs at Maradykovsky hold VX, soman, and sarin, as well as a less deadly mixture of lewisite and mustard gas. Technicians will open each bomb, drain out some agent if necessary, insert a neutralizing reagent, close up the bomb and let it sit for 80-110 days to let the chemical processes take place, said Gennady Bezrukov, chief engineer of the Federal Chemical Weapons Storage and Destruction Administration.
When it is running at full strength, the plant will be able to neutralize 96 weapons a day, he said.
Green Cross representative Tamara Ashikmina said she was satisfied that authorities were providing sufficient safety for the population and the environment. But the local population still has concerns, she said.
"Of course the population is anxious, because guests come and go but they have to live here," said Ashikmina, head of the chemistry department at the Vyatka State University in nearby Kirov.
The closest town to Maradykovsky — Mirny, with 3,500 people — and the surrounding region of 50,000 have been promised a new apartment house, central heating system, electricity and sewage system — an investment that by Russian law should be equivalent to 10 percent of the sum to be spent on the weapons destruction process itself.
New apartment houses have been built for plant medics and other workers in nearby Orichi, and the town has a new school — allowing the existing one to stop teaching children in two shifts a day.
The state has also funded an ecological monitoring laboratory, headed by Ashikmina in Kirov, that carries out daily checks of air, water, flora and fauna in an area of more than 310 square miles surrounding the site.
Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, pledging to eliminate its arsenal within 10 years. However, it won international agreement to prolong the deadline until 2012 because of a lack of funds.
Walker said that neither Russia nor the U.S. was anywhere near on track to meet that extended deadline. The U.S. is expected to complete destruction of its chemical weapons by 2020, he said.