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Uzbekistan: U.S. Begins Survey Of Chemical Weapons Plant

For the past week, a team from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has been conducting its first-ever site survey of the Chemical Research Institute, a former Soviet chemical weapons facility in Uzbekistan. Our correspondent looks at the U.S. mission and its significance.

Prague, 19 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In June 1997, the United States and Uzbekistan signed an agreement to cooperate on the destruction of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons Tashkent inherited after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Last May, the U.S. and Uzbekistan negotiated specific terms for the cleanup of the Chemical Research Institute in Nukus, in Uzbekistan's semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakistan. This weeks mission by the DOD is the first step toward implementing that agreement. U.S. officials visited the facility to gather information that will be used to develop a strategy to safely dismantle the plant.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ike Skelton from the U.S. Pentagon spoke to RFE/RL about the mission:

"The purpose of the DOD team visiting the former Chemical Research Institute in Nukus is to conduct a technical and engineering survey to define the requirements for dismantling the chemical weapons unique capabilities present in this facility."

The Chemical Research Institute is believed to have played a major part in the Soviet Union's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. According to a recent investigation by The New York Times, Nukus served as the main research testing site for a particularly lethal type of chemical weapon known as Rnovichok.

The existence of Nukus and other biological and chemical weapons testing facilities provides evidence that the Soviets violated international weapons treaties prohibiting such research. Russia has refused to disclose information about the work done at Nukus.

Nukus was in operation from 1986 to 1992, but the U.S. says it still considers the facility to be a significant security threat. The U.S. Congress has allocated $6 million under its Cooperative Threat Reduction program for the cleanup and the possible conversion of the facility for civilian use.

Skelton explains Washington's interest in the project:

"We have assessed the proliferation threat posed by the Nukus facility as one of sufficient magnitude to the United States national security and warrants its demilitarization by the most expeditious means. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, under the provisions of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, will provide assistance to the government of Uzbekistan to help dismantle this facility."

Skelton described what the DODs work at the Nukus site might entail:

"This could mean dismantling the building and those unique features which make it CW, or chemical weapons capable, possibly including [removing the facilitys] high capacity ventilation, possible test chambers and dismantlement, like I said, of all chemical weapons unique characteristics of this Nukus facility."

Skelton said the entire process could take up to a year to complete. He said people who live and work in the town of Nukus are unlikely to be exposed to any toxic chemicals from the facility while the work is underway.

"This facility right now poses, were told, little danger to the local population since theres no evidence that chemical warfare agents are present in other than trace quantities."

Nukus is one of several trouble spots in the former Soviet Union identified by the U.S. Weapons facilities in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Russia are also receiving cleanup funds from the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, first passed in 1991.

But the cleanup of the Nukus facility has a special urgency because Karakalpakistan lies in the Aral Sea delta, a region already ravaged by environmental problems. Poor Soviet water-management policies have caused the Aral Sea to shrink by more than half since 1960. The U.N. Environmental Program calls the Aral Sea the most staggering ecological disaster of the 20th century.

The worst may be yet to come. A Soviet biological weapons facility was recently discovered on Vozrozhdeniye Island in the Aral Sea. Experts predict a land bridge linking the island with the shore could be formed as soon as 2010, increasing the likelihood that contaminated wildlife from the island could infect the human population.