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