PORTSMOUTH, VIRGINIA —
Shipyard workers are readying the MV Cape Ray for a mission to destroy Syria's most potent chemical weapons arsenal at sea.
The U.S.-owned cargo ship is scheduled to leave for the Mediterranean in about two weeks, Pentagon officials told reporters during a tour of the ship on Thursday.
Deadly chemical weapons
The Syrian government agreed to turn over its chemical weapons last year amid threatened U.S. military action.
International monitors and crews from several nations will help in the process, escorting the chemical weapons shipments to a port in Syria where they will be loaded onto Scandinavian cargo ships. The weapons are expected to be transferred to the Cape Ray at an undisclosed port in Italy.
A December 31 deadline for removing most of the deadliest chemical agents has passed. International monitors say the delays are due to logistics, bad weather and continued fighting in Syria's on-going civil war.
The Cape Ray is being equipped with modular housing to accommodate three times its normal complement of crew.
Two hydrolysis units for destroying Syrian chemicals used in mustard and nerve gas weapons are also being installed.
Syria's chemical weapons will be destroyed inside this tent aboard the Cape Ray, which has been set up in the ship's cargo area.
“What we'll do is convert materials that are chemical weapons themselves or precursors to chemical weapons," said Frank Kendall, who has oversight of chemical, biological and nuclear arms as U.S. Under Secretary for Defense. "We'll change them chemically into compounds that are no longer usable for that. This avoids having to put these materials on somebody's territory where you have to deal with all the political and environmental conditions associated with doing that under local law."
The process will occur in a tent in the ship's cargo area.
"This will be potentially the most contaminated area. This is the hottest area for us,” a worker in a yellow jacket told reporters on the ship.
Those who will operate the system say the process is safe and they will see to it that no toxic waste ends up in the sea.
The technology is not new. The U.S. has used it destroy America's own chemical weapons. But this is the first time it will be done at sea.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association
research group, believes it is the best option.
“The technology's well proven," he said. "It is a process that doesn't involve the possibility of explosives, of any burning, and so this is a relatively safe process.”
Test runs have already begun and the ship is awaiting orders to head for the Mediterranean. Technicians plan to neutralize about 700 tons of Syrian chemicals in a span of 45 days.
It's a big job and delays are likely. Crews are loading extra supplies in anticipation the work will take longer than scheduled.
Reuters contributed to this story.