How To Destroy Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Pentagon experience shows it won’t likely be cheap or fast

  • Share
  • Read Later
Reagan Frey / Getty Images

Chemical-munition bunkers sit in front of the Desert Chemical Depot near Tooele, Utah, where the Army recently finished destroying its chemical weapons.

Hunting down Syria’s chemical weapons — assuming the Russian-brokered deal to avert a U.S. strike pans out — is going to be a challenge. Destroying them after they are located, assuming that is the path to be followed, will be no day at the incinerator, either.

No one knows that better than the Pentagon.

Chemical weapons are so deadly and volatile that any deal calling for their elimination would likely require them to be burned in place. “I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies — France and the United Kingdom,” President Obama said in his speech to the nation Tuesday night. “We will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring [Syrian strongman Bashar] Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

When Congress ordered the U.S. military to get rid of its chemical weapons nearly 30 years ago, it ordered it to do so in the safest way possible to calm nervous neighbors. According to the Army, there have been no confirmed reports of poisoning resulting from the destruction of the U.S. chemical-weapons stockpile.

It’s impossible right now to know just how much any Syrian operation would follow the U.S. path, which is taking place amid peace, not war. “That, of course, would be the ultimate way to degrade and deter Assad’s arsenal,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “It is the ideal way to take this weapon away from him.”

But Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the armed services committee, warned that destroying Syria’s chemical weapons could prove costly. “Whoever takes it over, owns it,” he said. “Is there any discussion who’s going to pay for that? Generally, when the international community does something, we’re the ones that end up paying for it.”

The Pentagon’s experience shows that ridding a nation of chemical weapons is a complicated, costly and time-consuming process:

— It begins with robots disassembling the weapons or vats filled with chemical weapons, and grouping each kind of component — the agent, the explosive or propellant and storage containers — separately from the others.

— The separate parts streams are then funneled to, and burned in, one of three kinds of furnaces: an incinerator for the liquid chemical agent; a rotary-kiln furnace for the destruction of explosives and propellants; and a metal-parts furnace to decontaminate by incineration the empty bulk containers, shells, and bombs.

— The gases and other combustion residue are scrubbed as clean as possible by various pollution-control devices. Leftover scrap metal is buried in a landfill. Brine produced by the scrubbers is evaporated, and the resulting salts are packed in drums for eventual burial, along with barrels of ash.

From World War I to the early 1960s, the U.S. stockpiled 31,500 tons of chemical weapons, divided between individual weapons and bulk containers, in bunkers at nine sites (the Syrians are believed to have less than 3% that amount). The U.S. government declared in 1985 that the Pentagon would get rid of its chemical weapons, including isopropyl methylphosphonofluoridate. NATO calls it GB, the world knows as sarin, and the U.S. believes Assad used to kill more than 1,400 people on the outskirts of Damascus Aug. 21.

As a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, along with more than 150 other nations, the U.S. planned to eliminate its stockpile by the 2007 deadline. Under the convention, the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has eliminated nearly 80,000 tons of chemical weapons from the arsenals of seven nations. The O.P.C.W. also could be tasked with the Syrian assignment.

It has taken the Pentagon far longer (the original completion date was 1994), and cost far more money (the original estimate was between $1 billion and $3 billion), to destroy its chemical weapons. To date, the U.S. has destroyed, primarily by burning, 89.75% of the arsenal at seven of those nine sites: Johnston Island in the Pacific; Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Aberdeen, Md.; Umatilla, Ore.; Newport, Tenn.; and Tooele, Utah.

The remaining 10% is slated to be neutralized using non-burn techniques. Current plans call for the 8% of the original stockpile remaining at Pueblo, Colo., to be rendered safe using a biotechnological process by 2019, while the 2% at the Blue Grass, Ky., is scheduled to be to be neutralized using what the Pentagon calls “super-critical water oxidation” by 2023.

As the program’s schedule has slipped by some 30 years, its price tag has ballooned by an order of magnitude. Remember that original estimate that it would cost between $1 billion and $3 billion to destroy the U.S. chemical-weapons arsenal?

It now stands at $35 billion. That works out to roughly $1 million to get rid of each ton of chemical agent, or about $500 a pound [correction from original figure of $5,000].