A stockpile of 5,400 tons of deadly chemical weapons — sarin and VX nerve agents — sits in simple barnlike buildings in a remote frontier town. The stockpile — enough weapons to kill the world's population three times over — is not in Iraq.
The weapons are just outside the isolated frontier town of Shchuch'ye, 1,000 miles east of Moscow, but well within the reach of Osama bin Laden and his supporters. The stockpile may be 10 times the amount that U.S. intelligence sources believe Saddam Hussein could have produced during his rule of Iraq.
The Russian government granted 20/20 an exclusive, first-time look at this terrible legacy of the Cold War.
"It's a real shopping mall for terrorists if they wanted to break in," said Paul Walker of Global Green, a watchdog group that's working to clean up toxic military waste and weapons sites.
Former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, who's been working to have these weapons destroyed, agrees. "It's a terrorist's dream … that's what it is," he said.
"This is much more dangerous than even nuclear weapons, because even one single individual could be able to operate such a weapon," said Zinovy Pak, head of the Russian Munitions Agency. Pak says Russia is desperate to destroy these weapons.
"You can kill 30-, 40-, 50,000 people in one shot, which would make the World Trade Center look like a birthday party," Walker said.
A Terrible Legacy
Russia, as a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, has declared that the Soviet Union amassed 40,000 tons of chemical weapons during the Cold War. Six years ago, however, the United States and Russia agreed to destroy all of their chemical weapons.
The Russian government wants to get rid of this potential time bomb. To draw attention to the possible dangers the massive stash presents, it allowed a 20/20 crew to film the site. When we saw the conditions in which this lethal cache was stored, we understood their sense of urgency.
The entry to the storage unit holding the lethal weapons looks like an old barn door, secured by a single padlock. Inside, the room appears to be lined with wine racks — 15 feet high, double-sided. But on a closer look, what at first appear to be bottles are gleaming artillery rounds. Some 44,000 shells are stored in one unit alone, each packed with deadly VX and sarin gas — a drop of which could kill a person in minutes.
There are 65 such storage facilities in Shchuch'ye, holding nearly 2 million weapon-packed artillery shells. Any one of the shells holds enough poison to kill a stadium full of people.
Within Terrorists’ Grasp?
People living here worry about the threat of terrorists from Chechnya — an autonomous region in Russia where rebels are trying to establish a separate state. The U.S. State Department is also concerned about the activities of Chechen rebels. In recent weeks, the State Department listed three Chechen organizations as terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda.
"If somebody attempted and managed to open them [the Russian shells] up, they would be able to use it. And the terrorists know that well," Col. Sergei Latansky, the chief engineer at Shchuch'ye, who is responsible for monitoring all the weapons.
U.S. Aid for Weapons Destruction Held Up
The American government has known about this precarious security situation for a long time. In 1991, then-Sen. Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., launched the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to help destroy chemical, nuclear and biological weapons. And yet the U.S. aid that is necessary to help Russia destroy its stockpile has been withheld.
Russian officials say they could never completely safeguard any type of storage. They believe there is only one way to make certain their chemical weapons never fall into the wrong hands, and that is to destroy them. But that is proving very difficult to execute.
In 1995, the United States signed an agreement to finance the destruction of these munitions. Since then $230 million has been spent. However, when it came time to build a facility to destroy the weapons, Congress put on the brakes, citing cost overruns and less-than-perfect inventory disclosure.
"There has been suspicion in the Congress that the Russians have never come clean, that 40,000 metric tons is not all of it. … So, on that basis members of Congress have blocked money," Lugar said. The congressional funding delays have stalled construction of a $900 million plant the United States is supposed to be building to individually drain and destroy these munitions.
When Lugar visited Shchuch'ye, he saw how easy it would be to smuggle out weapons. "You don't need a Mack truck to cart it out. In a small suitcase very deadly materials could be spirited out by an employee, by anybody," Lugar said.
Nunn, who now helps run the Nuclear Threat Initiative, gave us an idea of how immediate a threat these weapons could pose.
"If a guard in Shchuch'ye substituted four or five artillery tubes and put fakes in and took them out and sold them, those artillery tubes full of nerve gas could be on American streets or on an American subway system within a week or 10 days," he said.
"Homeland security doesn't begin in America," Nunn said. "It begins wherever there are chemical weapons, or biological or nuclear weapons that could be seized by a terrorist group."
‘A Wal-Mart for Terrorists’
Global Green's Walker, who was on the first congressional trip to Shchuch'ye back in 1994, described the site as "a Wal-mart for terrorists."
One of Walker's biggest concerns is that these weapons could end up on the black market. The poverty of the people in the Shchuch'ye area could compromise the security of the weapons, he said.
"The average income in that area is [roughly the equivalent of] $20 a month, unemployment is 50 percent, soldiers have not been paid in six months," Walker said.
But Latansky, the engineer in charge of the site, says all the weapons are secure and accounted for. He said there are many checks and double-checks in the system, and that there is no chance someone could change the count without his knowledge.
The Russians watched our every move while we were taping and prohibited us from filming certain areas of the Shchuch'ye base. While we were told that security has improved dramatically, we were shocked to see that soldiers at the front gate do not carry guns. There appeared to be no soldiers patrolling the perimeter of the base. And this may say the most about the base's security — a wax seal and thread are used to determine if someone has entered without permission.
Nunn, who observed a routine inspection at the site, said, "There was no apparent automation, no bar codes, no data storage, just flashlights and clipboards."
Left to Wonder and Worry
But the principal concern here is not about the integrity of the Russian military, it is about opportunity — the opportunity to obtain highly attractive, portable weapons and move them easily along numerous smuggling routes out of Russia. One of the best-known routes might take a weapon through Central Asia into Afghanistan within days.
Walker worries about how easily these weapons could be used, saying all a terrorist would need is a little plastic explosive. "Wrap a little Semtex around it, drop if off in the middle of a shopping center somewhere, remote detonate it," he said.
"It spreads a cloud of VX, you know, in the Super Bowl, or in any major sporting event or … downtown Washington, D.C., and it would kill anybody downrange that it touched or inhaled it or ingested it within two to four minutes."
The fact that it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it's less of a threat, according to Walker. "We just don't know whether these weapons have actually been sold or transferred to terrorists yet. I think it's a high likelihood they have."
The Russians deny any breach has occurred, but Pak did tell 20/20 that suspects have been detained for casing the facility. "We haven't been able to prove that these particular individuals, who are detained, actually wanted to seize the weapons. But we found them close, too close to the arsenals," he said.
So while war with Iraq may dominate the political landscape today, the threat to America from languishing weapons of mass destruction in quiet places like this will continue far into the future.
The Bush administration last month released $160 million to the Russians so they could continue working on the Shchuch'ye plant.
As work on the destruction of these stockpiles continues, Russians and Americans will have to wonder and worry if something inside is missing and whether it is already on its way to America.