While I was writing my book “State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program”, some people from Washington persistently advised me not to include the formulas of the chemical agents of the Novichok series in my book. These formulas were unknown to all countries of the world except for Russia, and they are not on the Control List of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
It seems that some people thought it would be much better if we just ignored Novichok and its precursors. Then we could count on the goodwill of the Russian Government.
I asked why it would be a bad idea to publish this information, since it would be for the safety of all people. Then the governments would work to have those chemical agents and their precursors included into the Control List. They responded, “Terrorists could use them for their criminal actions.” This kind of reasoning is used all the time now to scare people and prevent any discussion. We are already used to ignoring a lot of real problems thanks to that.
I reminded these people that the formulas of VX gas, sarin and soman have already been published. In some books it is even possible to find the basics of the production technologies of these agents. No one tried to give me a logical counter-argument or even make a good point. I suspect that the reason for this is that these people really have no real knowledge about their topic of conversation – chemical weapons. Oterwise, they wouldn't have adviced the UN Commission on Irak to go Saddam Husein's palaces before Bush's invasion, to look for his secret chemical agent factories.
To begin with, let’s consider the probability of the production of chemical agents by terrorists. In reality, production is an extremely tricky, dangerous and high-tech business. Can any serious chemical engineer or scientist imagine that this production could take place in an underground bunker, without highly trained and qualified personnel, and without extremely strict safety measures, somewhere in the Swat Valley in Pakistan? It’s not even science fiction, but a pure lie, because of the nature of these agents. Anyone who tried to synthesize and produce them this way would most likely kill himself.
In GOSNIIOKhT, the Russian center for developing chemical weapons where I worked for 26 years, all scientists and engineers, including the departmental and laboratory chiefs, had to pass safety exams every year. The technical personnel had to pass them every six months. The strictness of the technical measure in the laboratories and factories that produced chemical weapons was unprecedented. Even under these circumstances, there were many victims and the consequences were often lethal. My friend Andrei Zheleznyakov died after being poisoned with the Novichok agent A-232, even though he was very experienced and was observing all safety measures.
Formulas in books cannot replace experience, highly qualified engineers and the technological secrets of production. Without them, everything is absolutely useless.
My colleague, Mr. Lippman, who was once the chief engineer at the Volgograd factory for the production of chemical agents in Russia, told me about how the Soviets brought a whole factory for the production of sarin over from Germany after World War Two. With the assistance of two German engineers, they tried to begin the production of sarin there, but it took 6 years for it to get started up. The start up of the small pilot plant for the production of the Soviet VX-gas – known as Substance 33 – took more than 8 years. The experimental production of chemical agents like sarin and VX-gas in Iraq were also an instructive example. After the Gulf War, my colleagues from GOSNIIOKhT along with some Western scientists found some bombs filled with sarin and VX-gas, but in reality this was pretty much pure garbage, consisting mostly of the products of decomposition! It is known that some German businessman sold the technologies and assisted them in their start up, but the primitive technological level of the country made it impossible for anything noteworthy to be produced.
Another reason why it is impossible for terrorists to use chemical agents is that they cannot create weapons from them. Chemical weapons are chemical agents carried in sophisticated bombs or rockets that have reliable delivery systems or launchers. In the case of binary weapons, two chemicals must be mixed together perfectly during flight. The mixing and temperature need to be carefully controlled. Only special military personnel can operate them with minimal risk of poisoning or death. Also, it is impossible to send chemical agents out in envelopes, as someone did with anthrax spores in the US.
So far only the Aum Shinrikyo cult was able to use sarin gas, which has a relatively high volatility, to stage a series of coordinated attacks on the Tokyo Metro in 1995. Twelve people died, and up to 6000 more were injured or poisoned. It is clear this happened because of flaws in the security system of this metro. The volatility of both Novichok and VX-gas are hundreds of times less than that of sarin. For that reason, it is impossible to the same kind of methods Aum Shinrikyo did, and release them, exposing targets. In conclusion, it is clear that chemical agents cannot be used by terrorists, because of their lack of accessibility, their difficulty of manufacture, the lack of delivery systems and the danger posed to terrorist operators.
All of the advice people gave me not to publish formulas of the Novichok chemical agents, based on the argument that terrorists would use them, does not ring true. These agents should be acknowledged and immediately put under the control of the OPCW, the organization that administers the Chemical Weapons Convention. We need to stop mystifying chemical weapons and the non-existent biological weapons. It is time to stop scaring the American people with imaginary problems, in order to blindly extract as much money as possible from them for protection. If you look at the funding these scare tactics have generated for various projects, I am sure that some of them were necessary, but you can also be sure that some unnecessary pet projects of lobbyists were also included.
All these funds should be redirected for practical measures that will truly improve the security of our country and protect us from real danger.