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Muscle Shoals: 31 years in mothballs

AN American diplomat in Geneva hailed it as a ``major step toward greater openness.'' Halfway around the world, Ron Kirkland called it an inexplicable foul-up; he still shakes his head in incomprehension when he talks about that day last July.

At the chemical weapons disarmament talks in Geneva, the United States delegation revealed the location of each of the US ``chemical weapons production facilities.'' It distributed a map pinpointing the sites - one of which was here in northern Alabama, at Muscle Shoals.

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The move created no small uproar and quite a bit of skepticism.

Why? The ``chemical weapons production facility'' here has been mothballed for 31 years. The federal government's Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), where Mr. Kirkland is manager of special projects for the office of agricultural and chemical development, acts as caretaker for the plant.

If international inspectors were to view the Muscle Shoals facility, they would find an antiquated chemical plant that is quietly decaying, its cooling towers ensnared by vines, its valves frozen by rust.

There is no guard force, only a lone caretaker who tries to keep the weeds down.

The massive plant is called the ``Phosphate Development Works,'' or PDW. The Army chose an innocuous name in the 1950s to hide the true purpose of the facility - to produce chemicals that, when combined, form nerve gas.

But the charade was given up long ago, and the PDW's location has been known for years. The need for the plant was questionable: Over the years, many of its chemical products simply ended up in storage tanks at other Army facilities. It was shut down in 1957.

If the US is forced by treaty to dismantle PDW, the Army will be happy to comply. It declared the facility surplus in 1984. But the cost of dismantling the huge complex may well exceed the scrap value.

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The TVA did use one small building in 1987 to purify chemicals for the Army to use in its new generation of chemical weapons. The end product, methylphosphonic dichloride, or DC, is similar to fertilizer.

``DC is actually two steps removed from [being] a nerve agent,'' Kirkland says.

But, he adds, ``You treat this stuff just like any industrial chemical.''

US officials acknowledge that two others of the five ``production facilities'' identified publicly this year are, like the PDW plant, on ``standby'' status.

Still, they deny that naming them - with all the attendant press attention - was a publicity stunt.

``I can assure you we would have come under a lot of criticism if we had left Muscle Shoals off the list,'' one US official says.

Kirkland says he had no warning that the US was about to publicize the PDW. Worse, by the time word of the US declaration reached Alabama, he was being peppered with questions about a ``nerve gas plant.''

To this day, Kirkland says, ``We still can't convince some people that we're not making nerve gas here.''

Would he have any problem if the Soviet Union wanted to dispatch inspectors to see the facility?

``No,'' he says, noting that more than 2,000 visitors come each year. One of them, in fact, was the minister of chemical industries of the USSR.

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