The real chemical threat

PAUL F. WALKER follows Russian environmental and security threats at Global Green USA. JONATHAN B. TUCKER is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of "War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda."

THIS SEASON, the Fox TV hit series “24” revolves around the threat of chemical terrorism. Thus far, a gang of Russian separatists has stolen pressurized canisters from the U.S. military containing “Sentox” nerve gas (presumably sarin) and planted them in the ventilation systems of a shopping mall and the Los Angeles office of the (fictional U.S. government) Counter-Terrorist Unit. The gang then triggered them by remote control, killing several dozen people. Now the terrorists have stashed 17 canisters of Sentox in a natural gas distribution facility in downtown L.A. and are planning to kill thousands -- unless “24’s” hero, Special Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), can foil the plot in time.

Beyond a few technical quibbles, such as the fact that U.S. nerve agents are not stored in pressurized canisters with cipher locks but rather in rockets, bombs and artillery shells, the show seems all too plausible. Osama bin Laden has openly declared Al Qaeda’s intention to obtain weapons of mass destruction, of which chemical agents would be the easiest to acquire and use.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 6, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 06, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Chemical weapons: An April 1 article said Congress should fund security upgrades at a nerve agent destruction facility in Kizner, Russia. It should have said that Congress should fund such a facility in Kizner.

Nevertheless, the plot of “24” is misleading in one important respect: the source of the chemical weapons. The script has the terrorists stealing nerve-gas canisters that were secretly produced for the U.S. military and stored in an airport hangar. In fact, since 9/11, the Cold War stocks of chemical rockets, bombs and shells awaiting destruction at seven U.S. Army depots across the country have been well secured, most in heavily protected concrete bunkers.


At much greater risk of theft are chemicals in depots in Russia, which has the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons -- about 40,000 metric tons. And Russia is also far behind on the timetable for eliminating them under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the United States and Russia have signed and ratified.

To date, the United States, Canada and European Union countries have committed about $2 billion to help Russia destroy its chemical weapons, but the program has suffered repeated delays. Although the Russian government claims that all of the weapons will be eliminated by 2012, that date is probably unrealistic.

Only the smallest of Russia’s stockpiles -- 1,143 metric tons of the blister agents lewisite and mustard at Gorny -- has been destroyed. A second blister agent destruction facility at Kambarka began operation recently

Two other storage sites, at Shchuchye on the Kazakhstan border and at Kizner, about 650 miles east of Moscow, contain millions of munitions filled with nerve agents. Destruction of those chemical weapons won’t begin until December 2008 at the earliest.

According to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), some of the artillery shells stored at Shchuchye are small enough to smuggle out in a suitcase. Although the U.S. has spent $20 million on security upgrades at the two sites, it hasn’t conducted routine follow-up inspections to ensure that they stay secure.

Security also used to be seriously inadequate at Russia’s other depots, where about 28,000 tons of munitions filled with deadly blister and nerve agents were stored aboveground in decrepit warehouses with rusty perimeter fences. These weapons could be a bonanza for terrorists or criminal gangs.

Moscow says these problems have been corrected -- but it hasn’t let any Westerners in to verify that claim.

Helping Russia eliminate its vast chemical weapons stockpile is critical for U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism, yet Washington’s commitment to the effort appears to be winding down, even though the job isn’t done. Congress should spend more to fund security upgrades at Russia’s vulnerable chemical weapons depots and at a nerve agent destruction facility in Kizner.

Viewers of “24” can rest assured that by the end of the series, Bauer will save L.A. from a devastating chemical attack.

In real life, however, the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen here is to lock up Russia’s chemical weapons stockpiles and destroy them as quickly and safely as possible.