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Germ Weapons Plant Is Dismantled

By ALIMA BISSENOVA Associated Press Writer

STEPNOGORSK, Kazakstan - Biological weapons engineers who worked to create the world's biggest anthrax-manufacturing plant are now laboring to dismantle it - and wondering whether they'll find jobs again. The scrapping of the germ warfare plant at the Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental and Production Base is being carried out under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. But scientists at the Soviet-era plant say another promised part of the U.S.-funded program - conversion of the plant to civilian use - seems to have been shelved.

''There have been no investments, no arrangements for long-term civilian production,'' said Yuri Rufov, director of Biomedpreparat, the main successor.

''We are fulfilling our obligations in liquidating all the equipment that could be used for germ weapons production,'' he said. ''Now it is time for the United States to give us real support in developing a peaceful biotechnology industry here.''

A former director of the Stepnogorsk plant, Vladimir Bugreyev, said most of the scientists left for Russia in 1992-93. As far as he knows, none have gone elsewhere.

Western officials have long expressed concern that Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, which are all believed to have germ warfare programs, might try to hire some of the scientists.

A decade ago, when the Soviet Union was breaking up and the Cold War was ending, this town on the wind-swept steppes of northern Kazakstan wasn't listed on Soviet maps.

It was located inside a closed military zone where hundreds of scientists labored to develop lethal strains of biological weapons. It had the capacity to produce 330 tons of weapons-grade anthrax over a 10-month period, enough to decimate the population of the United States.

The facility's underground bunkers could hold up to 550 tons of anthrax powder, as well as equipment for loading the germs into bombs and missile warheads.

The plant was built starting in 1982 to replace a Soviet factory in the Ural Mountains' city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, that accidentally released anthrax into the air in 1979, killing about 70 people. Boris Yeltsin, then the local Communist Party boss, has said he did not know about the germ warfare facility at the time.

The Stepnogorsk plant violated the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which the Soviet Union signed in 1972. It wasn't until 1992 that Yeltsin, by then Russia's president, acknowledged the violation.

Russia cut off funding for biological weapons in 1991-92. A year later, the Stepnogorsk plant was reorganized for civilian use and renamed Biomedpreparat.

About 500 bioweapons engineers worked here in 1990; today, just 152 employees work in two civilian laboratories spun out of the Stepnogorsk weapons plant. Many are mechanics and technicians who are dismantling the equipment.

''There is nothing here, nothing left and nothing going on,'' director Rufov said. ''Everything is in the past.''

A U.S.-funded, $5.8 million joint venture to manufacture vitamins, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical projects never got off the ground, and equipment sent to Stepnogorsk has been mothballed.

''The equipment is worn out and outdated and didn't come with any supporting technical maintenance documentation,'' Rufov said bitterly.

U.S. officials say they are committed to developing the commercial potential at Stepnogorsk, but point to barriers to foreign investment. The site is remote - 100 miles from Kazakstan's new capital Astana. Buildings are in poor condition and the plant could be contaminated. A few weeks ago, U.S. inspectors found anthrax spores in a pipe at Stepnogorsk.

The plant was designed inefficiently for military production, so conversion to civilian uses would be costly. Rufov said the plant used a huge amount of energy, making it uncompetitive in the new market economy.

The Kazak government allocated only $500,000 for biotechnology research this year, and several institutes, including another laboratory at Stepnogorsk, the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, are vying for the funds, institute director Nadim Mukashev said.

His institute lacks heating because of unpaid utility bills. The 52 employees - many of them former Stepnogorsk bioweapons engineers - often aren't paid for months, Mukashev said.

The town's fate mirrors the plant. More than half the 1990 population of 70,000 has migrated, and entire apartment buildings stand abandoned.

Eighteen former bioweapons engineers now work for the environmental monitoring laboratory, which is responsible for the plant's safe dismantlement by 2004. Laboratory head Yevgeny Kalmykov said the department could expand its work to analyze soil samples in other regions of Kazakstan. U.S. officials say it is the most commercially viable sector of the plant.

''We have the most up-to-date equipment for organic, inorganic and microbiological analysis of environmental samples, as well as highly qualified specialists,'' Kalmykov said.

-- Martin Thompson (, November 01, 2001

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