Vozrozhdeniye Island, Soviet and Russian Biochemical Facility
█ BRIAN HOYLE
Vozrozhdeniye Island is a Russian island located in the Aral Sea approximately 1,300 miles to the east of Moscow that was used as a bioweapons test facility for the former Soviet Union. Since being decommissioned in the early 1990s the island has been left virtually unpatrolled. The island has served for decades as the repository of a large quantity of spores of Bacillus anthracis , the bacterial agent of anthrax, and other disease-causing bacteria and viruses. As the surrounding water has receded over the decades, direct access from the mainland to the island, and to the stocks of bioweapons that were disposed of by being buried on the island, will soon be possible. Concern is growing in the international community that the island will become a source of a new generation of bioweapons.
During its operation, the bioweapons facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island was regarded as an important strategy of the former Soviet Union in the tensions between the East and the West during the Cold War of the 1950s. Indeed, the word Vozrozhdeniye translates in Russian as "renaissance."
The island was used for open-air testing of bioweapons. The island was selected for its remote location and harsh conditions. The sparse vegetation and summer temperatures that reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit created inhospitable conditions that lessened the chances of survival for microorganisms that escaped. Records obtained following the island's decommissioning confirm that anthrax weapons were tested. As well, other microorganisms that were tested for their potential in biological warfare include the microbial agents of tularemia, plague, typhoid, and possibly smallpox.
The anthrax buried on the island was designed especially for the lethal use on humans in the time of war. The powder is a freeze-dried form of Bacillus anthracis called a spore. A spore is a form of the some species of Bacillus and Clostridium that protects the organism's genetic material during times when conditions are not favorable for the survival of the actively growing form of the bacterium. Bacterial spores that are capable of resuscitation and growth have been recovered from samples over 100 years old. Resuscitation of the spore requires only suspension in growth media having the appropriate nutrients and incubation of the suspension at a temperature that is hospitable for the bacterial growth.
Following the banning of offensive biological weapons programs in the United States and Russia, the biological warfare agents on Vozrozhdeniye Island were buried on the island in 1988. The island was abandoned in 1991.
Vozrozhdeniye island has remained unguarded since 1991. Then, it was thought that the island's location in the middle of the large and geographically isolated Aral Sea made the island secure from entry. However, in the intervening decades the demands for irrigation water have caused the Aral Sea—the largest freshwater lake in the world—to be used as a source of irrigation water. Water has consistently been withdrawn faster than it can be replenished. As a result, the water level of the Aral Sea has declined drastically, so much so that many scientists now fear that Vozrozhdeniye Island might soon be directly connected to the mainland. If so, and if the island remains unguarded, the buried stockpiled weapons could be vulnerable to theft.
Additionally, some surveys of the island have indicated that migration of some of the buried material towards the surface is occurring. Upon surface exposure, the bacteria and viruses, which may still be capable of infection, could be spread in the wind or transported elsewhere by birds.
█ FURTHER READING:
Choffnes, E. "Germs on the Loose." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists no. 57 (2001): 57–61.
Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present, and Future." CNS Occasional Papers. 2002. < http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/opapers/opl/opl.htm#island >(28 December 2002).
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "Rebirth Island Joins the Mainland." Earth Observatory. < http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=5 08 >(27 December 2002).