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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 Kazakhstan.

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 unknown substance.

‘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’.

Enzyme project

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 continues."

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."

New opportunities

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 European Union.

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 destroyed.

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 Telegraaf’.


Do you want to see pictures of 'Stepnogorsk'? Check out these pictures: