How Do You Destroy Chemical Weapons, Anyway?

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Sept. 10 2013 2:45 PM

If Assad Agrees to Destroy His Chemical Weapons, What Happens Next?

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Members of the New York City Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team participate in hazardous material training Oct. 17, 2002, in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Russian-originated proposal currently on the table for securing Syria’s chemical weapons is far from a done deal. For one thing, Russia itself may not be willing to support implementing it in any binding way. But with Syria’s government at least suggesting its willingness to become the 190th country to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, it’s worth taking a look at what steps would come next.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

I spoke today with Paul F. Walker, currently director of environmental security and sustainability at Global Green, and a former House Armed Services Committee staffer who has written extensively on the abolition of chemical weapons.

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Walker believes believes the agreement would be a positive step and that the destruction of Syria’s stockpiles “can be done, if Assad is serious about this and the rebels are too,” but also outlined the challenges involved in the process under even the best of circumstances.  

After Syria ratified the treaty, Walker says ”the clock would really start ticking for him to declare all of his facilities in writing—not only stockpiles but precursor chemicals—all of his production facilities, and research facilities, and anything else related to chemical weapons.”

After that, officials from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would arrive in Syria to take an inventory of the stockpile to see if it matched the declarations. Following these inspections, other countries would compare the numbers with their existing intelligence assessments. (A publicly released French report, for instance, estimates Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile at about 1,000 tons.) If discrepancies are found, one of these countries can demand OPCW inspectors be immediately sent in to conduct a “challenge inspection.” This has never actually happened before.

Once the inspection process was complete, Syria would have to come up with a technical plan for the destruction of its stockpiles. Until the 1980s it was common for chemical weapons to be dumped at sea or buried, but this is now strictly prohibited. According to Walker, most countries also don’t allow allow open burn—“just taking the weapons out and blowing them up in the middle of a field”—for understandable reasons.

“You have to treat this as an industrial destruction process in accord with environmental and health regulations,” Walker says.

The methods will be determined largely by what Assad has in his stockpile, but assuming he has the weaponized nerve agents that have been discussed in the media, there are two primary ways to destroy them. The first is incineration. “You have to separate the weapon from the live agent,” Walker says. This is generally done by robots. “You have a liquid furnace to burn the agent, and a metal parts furnace to burn the weapon. The complication here is if the weapons have integrated weapons and rocket propellant, you have to break those out, which can be very dangerous, and you have to have separate furnaces for those.”

The other option is chemical neutralization: “You drain the weapons and mix that chemically with hot water and a more caustic chemical such as sodium hydroxide. That chemically reacts and destroys the agent pretty well. Typically it also goes through a secondary process to destroy the precursor chemicals, such as a sewage treatment or a liquid incinerator.”

Unfortunately, even this doesn’t neutralize the danger completely. “There’s always some toxic waste that comes out—heavy metals, dried toxic gunk,” Walker says. “That has to be stored in barrels and put into a toxic waste site.”

Both Russia and the United States have more than 20 years of technical experience in chemical weapons destruction, but as I noted yesterday, both countries’ efforts to destroy their Cold War-era stockpiles have been years behind schedule. Sometimes these delays are political—public protests in the United States prompted a shift from incineration to chemical treatments at several U.S. facilities—but often they’re due to the understandable technical challenges of disassembling some of the deadliest weapons ever created.

“There have been mistakes and breakdowns in the technology,” Walker says. “We’ve had weapons explode when they’ve been separated, destroying the robots. Every time something like that happens, you spray nerve agents all over the room and it takes months to go in and decontaminate and start over.” Both programs have also been seriously delayed by budget overruns.

Given how difficult this process has been in two wealthy, relatively peaceful countries, the challenges of implementing it in war-ravaged Syria appears daunting, to say the least. The OPCW has never dealt with a conflict situation quite this hairy, but the closest to it is probably Libya.

Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government joined the treaty in 2004, declaring a stockpile of 25 tons of mustard agent. OPCW inspectors arrived on the ground shortly after. “That was a tough area physically because of the desert in Southern Libya but also because it was open to tribal warfare and the like. There was deep concern for the safety of the inspectors,” Walker says.

The destruction program began in late 2009, but was quickly put on hold by the Libyan Civil War. OPCW staff left the country with only about half the stockpile destroyed. “The main reason they left was because a piece of equipment broke down and when they tried to get a replacement shipped from Italy, the NATO blockade actually stopped the ship,” Walker says.

Despite concerns over the security of the facility during the war, none of the dangerous chemicals were taken from the site, though the inspectors’ living facilities were completely destroyed. After the deat of Qaddafi, Libya’s new government declared new chemical weapons stockpiles that the late dictator had kept hidden.

The chemical weapons inspectors who were shot at in Damascus last month were another worrying sign for new inspections. “The OPCW would be very reluctant to send in inspectors unless they were fully supported by security details—either Syrian forces or United Nations Forces—to protect them,” Walker says. 

In the end, even assuming complete cooperation from Assad's government, the destruction of Syria’s stockpiles could take “anywhere from a few years to a decade,” according to Walker. We can only hope that this war ends before the destruction of Assad’s arsenal is complete.