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They have been described as “a real shopping mall for terrorists” and “more dangerous than even nuclear weapons.”

They are arguably the scariest legacy of the Cold War: massive stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons stored throughout the former Soviet Union.

Many of these weapons stockpiles, some of which are housed in glorified pole sheds “secured” with little more than a single padlock, are well within reach of al-Qaida and other terrorists groups as well as black marketers, creating serious threats not only to nearby communities, but also the world at large.

Earlier this year, an ABC News 20/20 expose focused on 65 such weapons storage facilities 1,000 miles east of Moscow near the Kazakhstan border in the frontier town of Shchuchye. The facilities in Shchuchye alone are home to nearly two million weapon-packed artillery shells, any one of which can hold enough poison to kill a stadium full of people.

Former Senator Sam Nunn, who co-chairs the non-partisan Nuclear Threat Initiative and previously served as chair of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, calls such facilities “a terrorist’s dream.”

“If a guard in Shchuchye substituted four or five artillery tubes and put fakes in and took them out and sold them, those artillery tubes full of nerve gas could be on American streets or on an American subway system within a week or 10 days,” Nunn observed in the 20/20 broadcast. “Homeland security doesn’t begin in America, it begins wherever there are chemical weapons, or biological or nuclear weapons, that could be seized by a terrorist group.”

On October 1-3, Appleton, Wis., and Lawrence University will serve as the venue for a three-day “International Community Partnerships Conference.” Emphasizing “security through stability,” the conference will examine the crucial role that grassroots, community-to-community, international partnerships can play in reducing the threat posed by the Cold War era weapons stockpiles.

Former Soviet President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mikhail Gorbachev will open the conference with the keynote address Wednesday, Oct. 1 in Appleton’s Performing Arts Center.

At the conclusion of the conference, participating community partners will unveil the Communities for International Development initiative, a new non-profit organization dedicated to promoting cooperative programs and activities between sister cities in the United States and Russia.

Experts agree that improving the economic and social stability of the Russian communities where weapons of mass destruction are housed is a prerequisite for security.

Over the past decade, civic leaders and community organizations in five American communities — Appleton (Fox Cities) and La Crosse in Wisconsin, Oak Ridge (Blount County) in Tennessee, Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, New Mexico — have worked closely with their counterparts in Kurgan/Shchuchye, Dubna, Zhelezneogorsk, Snezhinsk and Sarov to create more jobs, improve health care, build sound educational systems and strengthen social infrastructure in these cities that house weapons stockpiles or were once major weapons development locations for the Soviet Union in efforts to reduce the threat posed by the weapons.

Representatives from each of the five community partnerships will come together for the first time at Lawrence University to discuss best practices and approaches from their own partnering experiences. They hope to develop practical models for strengthening collaborative programs in economic development, education, health care and the environment and civic development and federalism.

“We have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility as individuals and as communities to make a difference in this world,” said Fox Cities-Kurgan Sister Cities President Dr. Montgomery Elmer, a family physician with the ThedaCare regional health system and conference organizer.

The conference is organized by the Board of the Fox Cities-Kurgan Sister Cities Program, Inc., with the involvement of several community groups and corporations throughout Appleton and the Fox Cities. Funding from the U.S. government’s Open World Program will enable 30 delegates from the five Russian partnering communities to participate in the conference.

In addition to Mikhail Gorbachev, conference speakers will include Paul Walker, director of the Cold War weapons of mass destruction Legacy Program at Global Green USA and former senior staff member of the House Armed Services Committee; Sergei Baranovsky, President of Green Cross Russia; Laura Holgate, Vice President for Russia/New Independent States Programs of the non-partisan Nuclear Threat Initiative; and Paul McNelly, Chief of the Russian Chemical Weapons Elimination Division in the Cooperative Threat Reduction Directorate of the U.S. Department of Defense Threat Reduction Agency.