Russia opens key plant to destroy chemical weapons

Russia will miss a 2012 deadline for destroying all of its chemical weapons, officials said Friday as they inaugurated a major new plant to dispose of them.

The facility at Pochep, tucked between Ukrainian and Belarussian borders 250 miles southwest of Moscow, is the latest of six plants built in Russia in recent years to dismantle its Cold War-era chemical weapons arsenals — the world's largest. Pochep will process nearly 19 percent of Russia's stockpile, or 7,500 tons of nerve agent used in aircraft-delivered munitions.

The plant, hidden in a dense birch forest, is key for Russia's commitment to destroy all of its chemical weapons by April 2012 as Russia deals with its vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

As a signatory of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, the country already has destroyed about half of its chemical weapons, according to Russian officials.

Viktor Kholstov, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade's official in charge of chemical disarmament, said at the plant opening on Friday that Russia honors its commitment on disarmament but it will need two or three more years beyond the previously announced deadline.

The delay had been caused by a shortage of funds in the last two years, he said. Government funding has been scarce while international donors have provided only 60 percent of the expected funding.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a similar warning in August, saying that, because of the global financial crisis, Russia had run into "financial and technical difficulties" that would stretch the time required for completing the disposal of chemical weapons stockpiles by up to three years.

The United States has acknowledged it will miss the deadline, too. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said at the United Nations last month that the U.S. had destroyed 78 percent of the chemical weapons stockpiles and is on pace to destroy 90 percent of its arsenal destroyed by April 2012.

Col.-Gen. Valery Kapashin, a military official in charge of storage and elimination of Russia's chemical stockpiles, said Pochep is expected to destroy its stock of chemical weapons by the end of 2014.

The weapons processed at Pochep are loaded with nerve gas such as VX, sarin and soman which can potentially become a lethal weapon if they fall into the hands of terrorists. The first five tons of VX was destroyed at Pochep on Friday.

The munitions are transported from a nearby arsenal to the plant where they are drilled, then a fuel neutralizing their deadly agent is added. The munitions will spend three months in an underground storage before they will be burned in special stoves at the same plant.

"The destruction of these weapons eliminates a potential threat to the population and environment," Kholstov said, describing chemical weapons disarmament as Russia's priority in its foreign and domestic policies.

Unlike other plants where foreign financing was sizable, the Pochep facility was built mainly on government money but with small contributions from Germany and Switzerland.

Switzerland allocated a total of 14.5 million Swiss francs ($14.45 million) for Russia disarmament projects, Stefan Esterman, minister in Switzerland's Russian embassy, said but he could not provide a specific figure for the Pochep facility.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects currency conversion in paragraph 14.)