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URGENT Soviet Denies Missile Fuel Involved in Explosion, Says 3 Killed

May 18, 1988

MOSCOW (AP) _ A chemical factory explosion killed three people but did not involve fuel for a new long-range nuclear missile, as the Pentagon claimed, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said today.

Gennady I. Gerasimov said in a telephone interview that the explosion occurred at 7:15 a.m. on May 12 at a chemical factory in Pavlograd, about 500 miles southwest of Moscow in the Ukraine.

Three people at the plant were killed and five were hospitalized with injuries from the explosion, which occurred in a storage area for industrial explosives, Gerasimov said.

Soviet media carried no reports about the explosion.

U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday the explosion shut down the only plant in the Soviet Union that makes the main rocket motors for the new SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Defense Department said in a statement Tuesday that the explosion ″destroyed several buildings at a Soviet propellant plant in Pavlograd.″

Gerasimov said propellant was not involved in the explosion but he said he did not know whether the plant produced rocket fuel.

Pavlograd, with a population of 122,000, is about 30 miles east of the major industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk. Gerasimov said no evacuation of the area’s residents was ordered after the explosion.

The Pentagon said of the explosion, ″Apparently, this will delay Soviet solid-propellant missile programs.″

But Gerasimov said the explosion did not cause major damage. ″It’s not catastrophic,″ he said.

The SS-24 is a large 10-warhead weapon that can be launched from either underground silos or rail cars. The Soviets began deploying it just last year on rail cars. Fewer than a dozen are thought to have been made operational to date.

The SS-24 is one of two ICBMs in the Soviet arsenal that are mobile. The other is the SS-25, which is carried on a truck launcher. The United States has yet to deploy any mobile long-range nuclear missiles, although the Reagan administration is pressing Congress to develop a rail launcher for the MX missile.

The accident at the Soviet plant occurred just 2 1/2 weeks before President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev open a summit meeting in Moscow that is expected to focus on prospects for an arms accord that would reduce the number of long-range missiles in each nation’s arsenal.

Reagan administration officials contacted by The Associated Press said it would probably take the Soviets at least six months to resume production of the missile.

″This is their only production line for the SS-24 main rocket motors,″ said one administration source. ″This is a severe setback, albeit temporary.

″We estimate they could be back in production in six months. But in the meantime, it’s a significant body blow to their ICBM program.″

The sources in Washington said they did know what caused the blast.

U.S. spy satellites detected the explosion on the night of May 12, one U.S. source said.

The blast did not involve any nuclear warheads, another source said, ″but it sure tore that plant up.″

″They’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do,″ the official added.

The sources said they did not know whether the plant, in assembling the main rocket motor for the SS-24, was handling the oxidizer ammonium perchlorate, a chemical manufactured in a Nevada plant that was ripped apart by explosions earlier this month.

The plant, owned by the Pacific Engineering & Production Co., is one of two in the United States that make a critical ingredient for the solid rocket fuel that powers the space shuttle and various American military rockets. The Nevada site was flattened May 3 by tremendous explosions that killed two people and injured 300 others.

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