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Weapons of Mass Destruction
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Weapons Facilities, Past and Present
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By Lewis M. SimonsPhotographs by Lynn Johnson

They redefined warfare in the 20th century and could redefine civilization itself in the 21st. A closer look at the ugly legacy of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—and their unimaginable threat.

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At Stepnogorsk about 20 years ago, the Soviet military flung up a huge bio-weapons factory on the Kazakh steppe in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, which the Soviet Union had signed in 1972, joining the United States and more than a hundred other nations. On the site today, Yuriy Rufov is the director of an enterprise called Biomedpreparat, which is a big name for a little company. Except for Rufov and a few aides, huddling in their coats in a bare, unheated office building the subzero morning we visited, Biomedpreparat doesn't exist. It has no factory, no machinery, no laboratories.

In the Soviet era, Stepnogorsk was a "secret city," one of 30 or so locations that did not appear on maps, and the plant, part of the Soviet biotechnology program known as Biopreparat, manufactured anthrax for the military. Since 1996 the United States has spent 2.5 million dollars to turn most of the vast plant into rubble. Washington also agreed to help Biomedpreparat convert what remains into a pharmaceuticals factory and get the former staff back to work. That hasn't happened, to Rufov's frustration.

Rufov insisted that he and his colleagues wouldn't easily offer their services to other governments. "We were all educated to believe in the rightfulness of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. Going to work in the Middle East would go against everything we spent most of our lives believing in."

Yet thousands of those who were the Soviet Union's elite—granted the best of salaries, housing, food, schools, free vacations on the Black Sea, and other privileges that the state could offer—are today unemployed and barely able to put bread on the table. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that some of them, no matter how loyal or patriotic, could eventually be forced to sell what they know.

Of the 680 scientists and technicians who worked at the Stepnogorsk plant in its final days, said Rufov, 500 accompanied the departing Red Army to Russia; 112 remained in Stepnogorsk, paid by the United States to dismantle the plant; 16 were engaged in monitoring contamination of the ruins, also on the U.S. payroll; and 52 were working for a new medical manufacturing company nearby. According to Rufov, only a few former employees have ever gone to work abroad. Chief among them was Stepnogorsk's onetime director, a Kazakh named Kanatjan Alibekov.

A Soviet army physician and biologist, Alibekov fled to the United States in 1992 and filled the government's ear with chilling stories about the Soviet bioweapons program. His crowning achievement had been the perfection of Anthrax 836, the U.S.S.R.'s most powerful weapons-grade anthrax, four times more deadly than its predecessor. Made operational in 1987, it is an extremely fine, silky, grayish brown powder that can drift invisibly for miles.

Today, his name Americanized to Ken Alibek, he is chief scientist at a biodefense company in northern Virginia, as well as a professor of microbiology at a local university. The day I visited Alibek in his office, he looked like most American academics, wearing a black turtleneck and skimming a research grant application.

As eventually happens to some defectors, Alibek has been chided by his former CIA handlers for exaggerating information in an attempt to enhance his value. Yet when I asked him about former Soviet bioweaponeers now working abroad, his reply was matter-of-fact.

"Most are in Russia," he said in heavily accented English. "Some are here in the U.S.; a few are in Europe and Asia. There may be a couple in Iran, but if so, we're not talking big numbers. Very few." But, he added, "A few is all it takes."

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Meet the downwinders, victims of fallout from the Nevada Test Site, and learn about their fight for compensation.

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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
"Suitcase bombs" and "dirty bombs" are not the same thing, even though these terms are often used interchangeably.

Dirty bombs are part of a class of weapons known as radiological dispersal devices—conventional explosives surrounded by radioactive material such as cobalt 60, cesium 137, or strontium 90. They can be small enough to fit into a suitcase, hence the confusion with suitcase bombs.

Suitcase bombs are true nuclear weapons in that they are made with plutonium or highly enriched uranium, and they are more powerful than dirty bombs. They were made by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it is feared that some may have gone missing and could be in the hands of terrorists. Weighing up to 60 pounds (30 kilograms), they can fit into a small suitcase or large backpack and possibly be smuggled through an airport or, more likely, inside cargo containers aboard a ship or plane.

— Heidi Schultz
Did You Know?

Related Links
Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Reports, tutorials, timelines, Congressional testimony, and country overviews on all types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from the largest nongovernmental organization in the United States devoted exclusively to research and training on nonproliferation issues. Check out "WMD 411" for an introduction to the players and issues in the world of WMD.

Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's main site for information on biological, chemical, and radiological threats. Resources include fact sheets, news briefs, and emergency response guidelines.

The Non-Proliferation Project
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offers an arsenal of information on WMD. Find expert analysis of the WMD capabilities of countries around the world, and charts, reports, and Congressional testimony on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and treaties.

Federation of American Scientists
Get detailed information on arms control agreements, arms sales, government secrecy, missile defense, and WMD.

Read about the dangers of fallout from nuclear testing, efforts to compensate victims of radiation exposure, and the future of nuclear testing in the U.S.

The Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies
The center provides information specifically on biological threats and publishes Biodefense Quarterly.


A Feasibility Study of the Health Consequences to the American Population From Nuclear Weapons Tests Conducted by the United States and Other Nations, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2001. Available online at

Alibek, Ken, with Stephen Handelman. Biohazard. Delta, 1999.

Cirincione, Joseph, with Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar. Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002.

Guillemin, Jeanne. Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak. University of California Press, 1999.

Harris, Sheldon H. Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-up. Routledge, 2002.

Miller, Judith, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Ramana, M.V. and A.H. Nayyar. "India, Pakistan, and the Bomb," Scientific American (December 2001), 72-83.

Tucker, Jonathan. Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001.


NGS Resources
Long, Michael E. "Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America's Nuclear Waste," National Geographic (July 2002), 2-33.

Gup, Ted. "Up From Ground Zero: Hiroshima," National Geographic (August 1995), 78-101.

Edwards, Mike. "Lethal Legacy: Pollution in the Former U.S.S.R.," National Geographic (August 1994), 70-99.

Eliot, John L. "Bikini's Nuclear Graveyard," National Geographic (June 1992), 70-83.

Cobb, Charles E. "Living with Radiation," National Geographic (April 1989), 402-437.

Edwards, Mike W. "Chernobyl—One Year After," National Geographic (May 1987), 632-653.

Ellis, William S. "Bikini—A Way of Life Lost," National Geographic (June 1986), 810-834.

Bittinger, Charles Artist. "Operation Crossroads," National Geographic (April 1947), 519-530.

Markwith, Carl R. "Farewell to Bikini," National Geographic (July 1946), 97-116.

Arnold, Henry H. "Air Power for Peace," National Geographic (February 1946), 137-193.

Freidel, Frank B., Jr. "The Atomic Age: Its Problems and Promises," National Geographic (January 1946), 66-119.


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