Kazakhstan cleans Soviet legacy
Danger is lurking in ‘dead’ weapon factory
The dismantling team gets a last briefing to prepare for its dangerous
task. "You all get protective clothing. Always wear your mask in
building 221, even on the roof", team leader Brian Hayes orders.
American specialists are going to take samples in the biggest biological
weapon factory ever built in the world in the former Soviet Republic
STEPNOGORSK, 7 June 2000 - A microscopic quantity can kill a human being, in
times of war ‘Stepnogorsk’ could produce the same amount of the deadly
anthrax as a soft drink factory can produce coca cola: ten thousand
bottles a day. The main production hall, building 221, still gives
an impression of what happened here before the collapse of the Soviet
Union. Twenty thousand litre tanks to cultivate the anthrax. A moon suit
the scientists worked in. A rack of test tubes lying around with an
‘Stepnogorsk’ is situated in Northeast Kazakhstan, fifteen
kilometres from the mining town it was named after. During its peak years,
nine hundred scientists claimed to produce pesticides and fertilisers, in
reality they were developing ‘Anthrax 836’, the most deadly anthrax
spore known to man. In 25 buildings covering an area of two kilometres,
the entire production process was hidden, from the development stage to
the filling of the warheads.
The first symptoms of infection with anthrax resemble the onset of a
cold or a flue. By the time the skin begins to turn bluish – the first
visible symptom – the person has already begun to die. The lungs fill
with liquid, gradually cutting of their supply of oxygen. Every breath
becomes more painful. The end comes suddenly: some victims have been
reported to die in the middle of saying a sentence. Anthrax spores can
survive for decades.
How dangerous anthrax can be, is highlighted by an accident in 1979,
when at least 66 people died of infection with anthrax. A small amount was
released into the open air due to a missing filter in a biological factory
in Sverdlosk in the Ural. After the accident, the production was
transferred to ‘Stepnogorsk’.
In 1992, the true size of the biological weapons programme of the
Soviet Union became known. Then top scientist Ken Alibek defeated to the
United States. Alibek was the deputy director of ‘Biopreparat’, the
co-ordinating institute of a chain of biological weapon factories. In his
book ‘Biohazard’, Alibek reveals that he was ordered to fill ten SS18
warheads with anthrax. The rockets were pointed at New York, Los Angeles,
Seattle and Chicago.
In 1972, the Soviet Union signed the Biological Weapon Convention that
prohibits the use and development of biological weapons. A year later, the
secret ‘Enzyme project’ started. At dozens of locations in Russia and
Kazakhstan tens of thousands of scientists produced viruses and bacteria
with an increased resilience and resistance to antibiotics. Attempts were
even made to weaponise AIDS, Ebola and Legionnaire’s disease.
"Alibek is a traitor", says former colonel Gennadi Leposhkin,
who replaced Alibek in 1987 as director of ‘Stepnogorsk’. "He
sold the secrets of the Soviet Union and destroyed the biological weapons
programme. Leposhkin does not feel guilty about his involvement in the
production of deadly bacteria. "I am a scientist, I was just doing my
job. The test result was all that counted. I never meant to make a
contribution to the killing of human beings."
In December 1996, Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the United States
on dismantling Stepnogorsk. Previous attempts to convert the factories
failed due to lack of knowledge and money. Andrew Weber, special advisor
for the dismantling team, praises the co-operation of the Kazakhstani
government. "The government provides full transparency, contrary to
Russia. The Russians refuse to give us access to four locations similar to
Stepnogorsk. We fear that the biological weapon programme still
The equipment that can be reused for the production of biological
weapons was literally cut to pieces. The ten meters high test chamber with
thick walls of stainless steel has been removed. A few rusty animal cages
in the middle of the hall are the only reminiscence of its former
function. Apart from that, the dryers used to make powder of the liquid
bacteria are destroyed. The area around the factory is littered with old
iron and parts of machines and generators.
To prevent bacteria from spreading, the dismantling team takes all the
necessary precautions. A disinfectant is washed through all tanks and
pipes. The possibility that anthrax spores survived can not be ruled out
though. "We are definitely going to take samples here"; Weber
says pointing at the air filter system.
The area is cut off from the world with a fence, a small obstacle for a
terrorist looking for live spores for the development of biological
weapons. Team leader Brian Hayes does not fear burglary, though:
"There are easier ways to get hold of a strain of bacteria. For
example, it is possible to start a laboratory and ask for a strain for the
development of vaccines."
Except for the dismantling, an attempt was made to find work for the
scientists to prevent them from leaving to biological weapon producing
countries like Iraq. "Many scientists went back to Russia. Some
started their own business", Leposhkin says.
New initiatives should create a few hundred jobs. Part of the equipment
from the factory is now reused to develop vaccines and produce
hypodermics. Apart from that, a brand new laboratory equipped with the
most up-to-date apparatus in Central Asia is going to research soil
samples from the region. The lab is established with a grant of one
million dollars from the International Scientific and Technological Centre
(ISTC), a co-operation between the United States, Japan, Russia and the
In June, the United States hope to sign a two-year contract worth 12
million dollars for the last phase of the dismantling of Stepnogorsk. The
aim of that contract is to tear down the buildings that possibly contain
live spores. In 2002, this deadly Soviet legacy should be completely
After the dismantling, the danger of an attack with anthrax remains.
The rebels in Chechnya have threatened to use biological weapons and to
attack storage depots. Iraq is suspected to have tons of liquid anthrax in
storage. Other countries are possibly developing an anthrax weapon.
Since 1997, the protection of citizens against an attack with
biological weapons is high on the agenda of the United States. For
example, stocks of vaccines are built up and a non-specific immunity
medicine is being developed. Weber admits that the US is still very
vulnarable for an attack with biological weapons, but points out that the
situation in Europe is far worse. "Europe is completely unprepared
for an attack with biological weapons."
This article was published on 7 June 2000 in the Dutch newspaper ‘De
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