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
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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs