Russia denies report of chemical weapons accident

Russian officials denied reports Thursday that highly toxic chemicals had accidentally spilled from a weapons reprocessing facility in central Russia. Radio Liberty had quoted Tatyana Korolyovaya, an environmental activist in a town close to the Maradykovsky complex, as saying that several aviation bomb casings had ruptured during reprocessing and that toxic liquid had spilled onto the ground. The Maradykovsky plant, located 725 kilometers (450 miles) northeast of Moscow, holds 6,900 tons of nerve agents stored in aerial bombs and missile warheads _ or more than 17 percent of Russia's chemical weapons stockpile. "Information that depressurization of several weapons and poisonous liquids spilled on the ground is completely disinformation," said Mikhail Manin, the official in the Volga region responsible for weapons-related issues. In a statement released by the regional government, Manin said he had been in touch with Lt. Gen. Valery Kapashin, a top chemical weapons destruction official who was at the plant this week, and other officials who said there were no incidents at the plant. The Interfax news agency reported that Kapashin had traveled to Maradykovsky to discuss the next phase of construction at the plant, but the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Manin as saying Kapashin had observed the extraction of toxic materials from eight weapons. Lev Fyodorov, the head of the Union for Chemical Safety in Moscow, said that the perception of what occurred a week ago all comes down to definitions. "I think it's an accident. They don't think so," he told The Associated Press. The Maradykovsky reprocessing plant opened in September on the site of one of Russia's seven former chemical weapons production plants. The plant is a focal point of the push to meet an April 2007 target set by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for Russia to destroy 20 percent of its stockpile. To date, Russia has eliminated just 3 percent, as opposed to 39 percent destroyed by the United States, home to the world's second-largest stockpile. The alleged accident "is a sign that the method they chose is convenient only for making a quick accounting" before other signatories to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention," Fyodorov said. The bombs stored at Maradykovsky hold VX, soman and sarin, as well as a less deadly mixture of lewisite and mustard gas. Technicians are to open each bomb, drain out some agent if necessary, insert a neutralizing reagent, close up the bomb and let it sit for 80-110 days to let the chemical processes take place, said Gennady Bezrukov of the chemical weapons destruction program, describing the procedure in September at the plant opening. When it is running at full strength, the plant will be able to neutralize 96 weapons a day, he said. Fyodorov said officials had chosen an unreliable technique for reprocessing the chemical weapons, since it involves filling the bombs and warheads with water to start the reprocessing but that does not leave adequate room for the liquids inside to expand if the temperature rises. "When you have 22,000 weapons filled with water lying around, there is the probability that one or the other will explode, and it's a high probability," he said. But he said that the chances of environmental damage from the alleged accident were slim, since it occurred inside the reprocessing facility.