RUSSIAN LAB STORING GERMS FACES CUTOFF OF ELECTRICITY
04 Nov 2002
Source: New York Times, April 7, 2002.
Russian Lab Storing Germs Faces Cutoff of Electricity
By PATRICK E. TYLER
MOSCOW -- A large repository of anthrax, plague and other deadly bacteria stored in a high-security laboratory complex 100 miles south of here is facing a threat never imagined in the Soviet era -- the meter man.
An official from the Moscow region's Mosenergo electric utility arrived recently and threatened to turn off the electricity for lack of payment at the 90-building campus, which served as the secret biological weapons program of the Soviet era.
A headline in the newspaper Izvestia warned, "Deadly Viruses From a Moscow Regional Depository Threaten Moscow."
Actually, there are no viruses at the State Scientific Center of Applied Microbiology in Obolensk, just every kind of deadly bacteria that was studied for use in the secret biological weapons program of the Soviet Union. (A large virus repository is in Siberia.)
Russian and Western officials say that while it is unlikely that any public health threat would result from a power cutoff, there is enough uncertainty that none were willing to say that categorically.
"We have quite reliable systems of protection in case of emergency," Gen. Nikolai N. Urakov said by telephone. He is the longtime director of the center, which has been working with Western scientists to convert the complex into a biomedical manufacturing site.
"But we are scared by this threat of a sudden shutdown of electricity," he added, "because it is a kind of psychological pressure on us." In the event of a shutdown, he said, scientists must destroy all bacteriological experiments under way.
About 3,000 strains of bacteria are stored at the center, many of them in cryogenic casks cooled with liquid nitrogen and isolated from the environment by layered enclosures and oversize air-handling systems, and all dependent on electricity.
The greatest danger from a shutdown of electric power would be the defrosting of live germs now preserved in a frozen state.
"The main threat is to the organisms themselves rather than that they might escape," said Raymond Zilinskas, a biological warfare expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Under the worst case, these things would be defrosted from minus 70 degrees, and it would be a real mess to clean it up afterward because you wouldn't know for sure whether everything was dead."
General Urakov would like the United States and Western countries that have contributed about $6 million to the transformation of the bioweapons complex to throw in another $500,000 a year to pay the center's electric bills and arrears. An American scientist who works closely with the center said the Russian government was responsible for keeping the lights on.
The confrontation at Obolensk is another example of how the basic capitalist imperative for enterprises to be self-sustaining can clash, often alarmingly, with the old remnants of Soviet weapons science.
Two years ago, because of an overdue power bill, the Russian national power company cut electricity to a strategic base where nuclear missiles stood on high alert, though the silos themselves did not lose power. Armed troops marched to the substations and turned the power back on.
Last January and February, the national utility, United Energy Systems, cut power to a number of military installations around the country, including the Russian Space Forces monitoring center on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
In most cases, power has been quickly restored. Often investigations show that the tug of war with the utility forces the military to spend budgeted funds for electrical power instead of diverting money to to other uses, which at times have included building country residences for generals.
Western aid for conversion of General Urakov's bioweapons laboratory spiked in 1997, when it was learned that Iran had made overtures to the institute to purchase its expertise.
Russian scientists and military leaders who now depend on Western financing to destroy nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been known to orchestrate a sense of crisis to increase financing.
But Randall Lee Beatty, an American scientist working on the conversion of the Obolensk facility, said, "This is a crisis."
Mr. Beatty is a director of the International Science and Technology Center, which finances about half of General Urakov's budget to support about 350 Russian biowarfare scientists and technicians. "We know they have not paid their electricity bill for 14 months," he said. "But this is one of the important archives for dangerous pathogens in the world, and it would be a shame if it were destroyed for not paying the light bill."