Russians examine methods of destroying chemical weapons at Aberdeen facility

As an entourage of senior Russian government leaders trooped through a U.S. Army facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground yesterday, the course of history seemed to be moving on fast forward.

The Cold War had barely ended, and now seven high-ranking Russian officials were poking around an American military installation -- and talking chemical weaponry.


They came to the proving grounds to tour the $40 million Chemical Demilitarization Training Facility, which was designed to teach workers at eight U.S sites how to destroy chemical weapons.

Members of the Russian Federation hope to return home with a better handle on the technology they'll need to destroy an estimated 40,000 tons of chemical weapons stockpiled in their country. The United States has an estimated 30,000 tons of chemical weapons.


Because the Soviet Union is no more, Russia, where the Soviet Ministry of Defense had stored all its weapons, now bears sole responsibility for them.

"On one hand, Russia can relax because the surrounding states don't have weapons in storage," said A. D. Kuntsevich, chairman of the Russian demilitarization committee.

"But on the other hand, because we have taken responsibility for the stockpile, Russia alone will have to bear the expense of destroying all the weapons of the former Soviet Union."

The group included members of the Supreme Soviet and the ministers of defense, ecology and foreign affairs and a Russian ambassador. It marked the first U.S. visit of its kind for the members of the ministries that will oversee Russia's chemical weapons destruction.

After a day of discussing the nuts and bolts of weapons destruction, the Russians took a quick tour of the facility that ultimately will train 2,080 U.S. workers to operate and maintain chemical-disposal facilities across the United States.

They got a close-up look at the equipment used to dismantle projectiles and drain weapons of their lethal chemicals, then moved on to a nearby room of TV monitors, where technicians manipulate the equipment by remote control.

As the Russians toured the facility, they asked questions about everything from worker know-how to environmental safety.

Yesterday's tour came in the wake of a recently signed agreement between the U.S. Department of Defense and President Boris Yeltsin's Committee on Conventional Problems of Chemical and Biological Weapons of the Russian Federation. The agreement, signed in July, provides up to $25 million in Department of Defense funds to help the former Soviet Union destroy chemical weapons.


The visit was designed to provide Russians with insight into the technology as well as worker safety and environmental issues, said Billy Richardson, U.S. deputy assistant to the secretary of defense.

"But they are also very interested in budgets, in what percentage of the budget goes to the different parts of the operation," Mr. Richardson said.

While the method of destruction of chemical agents is a highly charged issue locally, the Russian delegation seemed impressed with the U.S. accomplishments in incinerating mustard agent.

"We are very interested in the efficiency of the operation of the equipment here," said Mr. Kuntsevich. "Americans have a very effective incinerator, and we would hope we could get some assistance in that aspect of the operation."

Incineration is the method of destruction proposed by the Army for mustard agent, the only chemical stored in the Edgewood area of APG.

But many Harford residents and officials, including County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, are fighting incineration because of health and safety concerns. And Congress recently ordered the Army to take a second look at other methods of destroying the lethal material.


The proving ground manages about 5 percent of the total Army stockpile of lethal mustard agent. The syrupy liquid burns the respiratory system; high doses can be fatal.

The Russian entourage will be in Washington today. Tomorrow, its members will visit the Tooele Army Depot in Utah, where nearly half of the U.S. chemical stockpile is stored. It is the site of the first industrial-scale chemical weapons incinerator in the United States.