How the U.S. Will Dispose of Syria’s Chemical Weapons

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus hotel for a third day of on-site investigations into apparent chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of the capital. Activists and doctors in rebel-held areas said the six-car U.N. convoy was scheduled to visit the scene of strikes in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. 
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Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Dec. 3, 2013, 5:06 p.m.

The U.S. nar­rowly avoided mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia after Bashar al-As­sad pledged to rid his coun­try of chem­ic­al weapons. But now it ap­pears that Wash­ing­ton, bar­ring any bet­ter op­tions, will have to des­troy the most leth­al ele­ments of Syr­ia’s stock­piles. That pro­cess will be dan­ger­ous — and po­ten­tially very ex­pens­ive.

As the U.S. awaits a form­al in­ter­na­tion­al re­quest to help des­troy the Syr­i­an ma­ter­i­al, which in­cludes mus­tard gas, sar­in, and VX, here’s a de­tailed look at what that op­er­a­tion could in­volve.

TRANS­PORT

Be­cause coun­tries — in­clud­ing Al­bania, Bel­gi­um, and Nor­way — de­clined to des­troy Syr­ia’s ar­sen­al on their own soil, the Or­gan­iz­a­tion for the Pro­hib­i­tion of Chem­ic­al Weapons said the U.S. offered to break down the most leth­al com­pon­ents in in­ter­na­tion­al wa­ters.

The glob­al chem­ic­al-weapons watch­dog hopes to see all the de­clared chem­ic­als trans­ferred to the coast­line by the end of the year so they can be elim­in­ated away from the bloody fight­ing in Syr­ia. Yet the trans­it it­self through the war-torn coun­try will be risky.

“We’re ac­tu­ally en­ter­ing the most dan­ger­ous phase of this op­er­a­tion by far right now,” said Amy Smith­son, seni­or fel­low at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies at the Monterey In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. “Be­cause they’re go­ing to try to move bulk quant­it­ies of chem­ic­als from a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions with­in Syr­ia, through sev­er­al dif­fer­ent routes where they could come un­der a se­cur­ity threat from any of the war­ring parties in this con­flict — for starters, al-Qaida and Hamas.”

“It doesn’t take a stretch of the ima­gin­a­tion to re­cog­nize that if you cap­ture a con­voy that has mus­tard gas in it, then you’ve got a real war prize,” Smith­son con­tin­ued. “And if it’s a ter­ror­ist group, they might use it against the neigh­bor­ing states.”

THE BOAT

In Nor­folk, Va., the U.S. is modi­fy­ing a 648-foot-long trans­port ves­sel, the MV Cape Ray, to in­clude chem­ic­al-arms de­struc­tion gear. The Field De­ploy­able Hy­dro­lys­is Sys­tem is ap­prox­im­ately 400 feet by 700 feet and in­cludes power gen­er­at­ors, haz­ard­ous-waste stor­age, and a labor­at­ory. The sys­tem, meant to eas­ily ship in ap­prox­im­ately 35 20-foot con­tain­ers, needs only con­sum­able ma­ter­i­als such as wa­ter, re­agents, and fuel to run.

The sys­tem was com­mis­sioned on a short time line. Ini­ti­ated in Feb­ru­ary, the first unit was de­livered by Ju­ly — though, as a De­fense of­fi­cial noted, it was not de­veloped “spe­cific­ally” for Syr­ia’s loom­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion crisis.

When the ship is un­der way, it will likely be un­der the mil­it­ary’s Seal­ift Com­mand, for which typ­ic­al mis­sions in­clude re­sup­ply­ing Amer­ic­an car­ri­er groups with fuel and food sup­plies. It re­mains un­clear wheth­er mil­it­ary or ci­vil­ian per­son­nel will carry out the dis­pos­al op­er­a­tion.

DE­STRUC­TION

Des­troy­ing the chem­ic­al ma­ter­i­als, ac­cord­ing to OP­CW Dir­ect­or-Gen­er­al Ah­met Üzüm­cü, is ex­pec­ted to cost between $47 mil­lion and $61 mil­lion, though this es­tim­ate does not ne­ces­sar­ily in­clude the price of the sys­tem, trans­port­ing the stocks, or dis­pos­ing of the tox­ic waste af­ter­ward.

“We are work­ing on de­term­in­ing costs,” a De­fense De­part­ment of­fi­cial says, “but we are ob­vi­ously in the pro­cess of start­ing those modi­fic­a­tions [on the Cape Ray] so we will have more firm cost fig­ures soon.”

Here’s what that money will go to­ward: des­troy­ing an es­tim­ated 500 tons of chem­ic­al-war­fare agents con­sidered too dan­ger­ous to bring in­to an­oth­er coun­try. The hy­dro­lys­is sys­tem is meant to neut­ral­ize the agents in bulk with re­agents (such as wa­ter, so­di­um hy­drox­ide, and so­di­um hy­po­chlor­ite) by com­bin­ing them in a re­act­or, heat­ing the mix, and al­low­ing the sub­stances to re­act be­fore re­mov­al.

This com­plex op­er­a­tion is haz­ard­ous, even on a boat, said chem­ist Ralf Trapp, formerly with the OP­CW, who works as an arms-con­trol con­sult­ant. “People will have to op­er­ate with pro­tect­ive gear, de­con­tam­in­a­tion equip­ment, in case something goes wrong or someone goes in­to a con­tam­in­ated zone. They will have to have sensors on board,” he said.

The hy­dro­lys­is tech­no­logy has been proven and used by the U.S. in de­struc­tion of its own stocks in the Army’s Ab­er­deen Prov­ing Ground in Mary­land, and in New­port, Ind. While it was not de­signed to be de­ployed on a boat, the De­fense of­fi­cial said, “it’s cer­tainly feas­ible.”

The pro­cess, which can neut­ral­ize five to 25 met­ric tons of chem­ic­al war­fare agents a day, also cre­ates li­quid haz­ard­ous waste — roughly five to 14 times the quant­ity of the treated ma­ter­i­al.

“What are you go­ing to do with that [li­quid in­dus­tri­al waste]? Dump it in the ocean? Ob­vi­ously not,” OP­CW spokes­man Mi­chael Luhan said. “That could be dis­posed of by private com­pan­ies sub­con­trac­ted by the U.S. gov­ern­ment.”

COM­MOD­ITY CHEM­IC­ALS

The U.S. gov­ern­ment won’t des­troy all of Syr­ia’s ar­sen­al, however.

Some 800 tons are what’s con­sidered com­mod­ity chem­ic­als — sub­stances that can serve as pre­curs­or chem­ic­als for weapons of mass de­struc­tion, but are also found in stand­ard in­dus­tri­al uses and there­fore con­sidered safe to des­troy in com­mer­cial fa­cil­it­ies.

Be­cause these sub­stances were “all part of a pro­duc­tion chain whose end-point was to make chem­ic­al weapons,” Luhan said, “they all have to be des­troyed.”¦ If some of these chem­ic­als were be­ing used to make phar­ma­ceut­ic­als or some oth­er le­git­im­ate pur­pose, they could re­main in Syr­ia.”

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