News / Middle East

Destroying Syria’s Chemical Stockpiles a Costly, Lengthy Process

FILE - Giant containment cylinders used to move deadly chemical weapons from storage igloos to an incinerator inside the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Oregon, June 8, 2004
FILE - Giant containment cylinders used to move deadly chemical weapons from storage igloos to an incinerator inside the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Oregon, June 8, 2004
TEXT SIZE - +
Cecily Hilleary
— President Barack Obama is holding off on a decision to attack Syria so he can explore a negotiated settlement on securing and destroying the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons. 

Twice in recent years - in Iraq and in Libya - the U.S. and its allies have dismantled and destroyed chemical weapons programs, but never in the middle of a war.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says the experience gained in Iraq and Libya shows that dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program is feasible, even during armed conflict.

Daryl G. KimballDaryl G. Kimball
x
Daryl G. Kimball
Daryl G. Kimball
“However, the situation in Syria is different in some ways,” Kimball said.  “It’s going to be more challenging to survey these sites, secure these sites, verify the Syrian government’s declaration about stockpiles, the volume, the types, the locations.” 

But if the inspectors—either from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW] or named by the U.N.—have access to personnel and records, they can do their job well enough to secure these stockpiles and deny the Assad government access, he said.

And that would insure, according to Kimball, that “after the hostilities end, these very dangerous stockpiles don’t fall into other dangerous hands.”

So assuming Syria offers the access it has promised, then what?

First, the Assad government would need to sign the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the arms control agreement that prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.  Within two or three weeks after that, Syria would need to fully declare its chemical weapons inventory. 

“And then they need to immediately allow inspectors from the OPCW or the U.N. team led by Dr. [Ake] Sellström to inspect the facilities,” Kimball said, “to verify the declaration, to make sure that it’s complete and accurate, and to secure the sites and effectively take control so that the chemical agents don’t leave the facilities, and the facilities are not compromised by outside threats.”

Kimball says these are the most important priorities.

“The task of verifiable destruction would be something to be conducted at a later stage, depending on the situation on the ground and the status of the conflict,” he said.

Chemical weapons are difficult to dispose of - they either have to be incinerated or neutralized with other chemical agents. That takes time, and it also takes special facilities.

Destroying Chemical Agents

Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
x
Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
Decades ago, the United States and Russia destroyed its chemical weapons by burying them, burning them in open-air pits, or dumping them in the ocean. Because of the obvious risk to human health and the environment, the CWC put an end to these practices in 1992.  These days the United States and Russia destroy chemical weapons either by burning them at high temperatures or by neutralizing them with water and other agents.

Liquid chemical agents are burned in a furnace at a temperature of roughtly 1,100 C, about as hot as molten lava. At that temperature, the actual burning of the chemical agent would take only seconds. 

Chemicals contained in bombs or artillery shells are disassembled by robots, and the liquid chemical agent is drained and sent to be incinerated.  Meanwhile, metal parts are fed into a separate furnace and melted.  This ensures that any residual chemicals are also destroyed.  
 
Some toxic chemicals such as mustard gas can be destroyed by neutralizing them with either hot water or a combination of hot water and sodium hydroxide—a process known as hydrolysis. This process gives off a byproduct, hydrolysate, which is then treated separately.

Both methods would require the construction of an additional facility near the storage sites or at some central location for the incineration or the neutralization of the chemical agents.

“These facilities don’t exist in Syria today,” Kimball said.

It is a costly proposition. As a general rule, it costs 10 times more to destroy chemical weapons than to produce them. According to one 1996 assessment, the cost of dismantling, storing and destroying U.S. chemical weapons was $11-15 billion.
 
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substanceThe extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
x
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
Environmental clean-up would run another $15-20 billion.  U.S. stockpiles of mustard gas, VX and Sarin were stored at only a few facilities, but Syria has weapons stored at an estimated 40 locations across the country. 
 
Doing the math, it could take years to destroy what has been billed as the third largest chemical weapons arsenal after Russia and the United States – and America has been at it for more than 15 years.
 
Ensuring Inspectors’ Safety
 
It has been suggested by some experts that it would be impossible to guarantee the safety of a weapons inspection and disposal team while fighting is underway in Syria, but Kimball disagrees.

“Syria’s chemical arsenals are probably the most secure areas within the government-controlled territory today because these are their most valuable and sensitive military assets,” Kimball said, “and so the Syrian government can most likely ensure the basic safety of the inspection teams looking at these facilities.” 

That said, there are still too many unknowns to put an exact timetable on the process, says Kimball.  And there is still no guarantee that the Syrian government will really be willing to comply with the exacting demands that would be placed on it by the international community.

You May Like

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

36 people are confirmed dead, but some 270 remain trapped on board More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid