Destroying Chemical Weapons: A Highly Political and Technological Process

By Alena M. James

With tensions escalating between the western powers and Russia, the crisis in Ukraine has absorbed much of the international community’s attention these past few weeks. In doing so, the civil war in Syria and its efforts in cleaning up its chemical weapon’s arsenal have been placed on the backburner.  In a report titled, Russia-U.S. Tensions Could Stall Syrian Chemical Weapons Removal, NPR discussed the significance of the joint efforts of the US and Russia to get Bashar Al-Assad on board with committing to the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stock piles.  Now that the diplomatic relations between the western powers and Russia have soured, many worry about a delay in Syria’s commitment to eradicating its chemical weapons. The possibility of such an event taking place highlights the importance of the political aspect involved in ensuring chemical weapons cleanup.

Recently, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that approximately half of the Syrian chemical weapons stock piles have been removed in the past few months—an accomplishment that has taken the US decades to move towards. The OPCW also announced that it intends to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.  Such a goal appears incredibly ambitious and critics remain skeptical of this goal being achieved in the allotted amount of time due to the stressful international relations surrounding Syria and Russia.

Over the weekend, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet after accusing Syria of violating its airspace, an act which is likely to further increase heightened tensions in the region and distract from the weapons cleanup process. Prior to the Ukrainian Crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US and Russia had played significant roles in the physical removal of the chemical weapons from the civil war torn state.  Russia provided security measures and the US provided transportation and decontamination equipment to help destroy the stockpiles.  The cleanup process was already a little behind schedule before relations between Russia and the US spiraled downward. Now with sanctions from the US and Europe against Russia, many fear that Russia will no longer provide the political support needed to influence Syria to continue removing the remaining stock of chemical weapons.

Presently, the western powers have already criticized Syria for its inability to meet earlier deadlines of chemical weapons removal.  While the delay can be linked with the current toxic political climate, lessons learned from the US’ chemical cleanup efforts suggest that years and even decades are necessary to safely cleanse a state of its chemical weapons arsenal leaving other factors to be considered as to why the cleanup process may not reach the June 30th deadline.

In a recently published article, “Deadly chemical weapons, buried and lost, lurk under U.S. soil,” The Los Angeles Timesreports on the US’ failure to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpiles dating back to World War II and acknowledges the existence of hundreds of chemical weapons still needing to be processed. According to the report, the US has more than 200 burial sites which include chemical agents such as mustard agents, blister agents, and nerve agents, like tabun produced by Nazi Germany.

Following the end of WWII, the US became the Goodwill Collection Center for the German, Japanese, and British chemical weapons stockpiles.  While some of the stockpiles were burned, the majority of the weapons were buried at the different sites around the country.  Sites located in Alabama and in Washington, DC received hundreds of chemical agents that were to be disposed of without any consideration of the possible environmental impact. Disposal methods also failed to consider the necessity of maintaining complete inventories of site locations, types of agents buried, or the amount of materials buried. In essence, the US does not know where all of the sites are until a civilian reports the presence of an odd looking canister of weapons ammunitions floating up on shore or sticking out of a garden in someone’s backyard in Northwest Washington. The lack of foresight regarding the destruction of chemical weapons at the end of WWII, has left future generations to deal with these issues; which presents a major challenge for cleanup efforts.

Director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability program, Paul Walker, acknowledges several other challenges involved in the chemical weapons cleanup process.  According to Walker, the technology selected to destroy chemical stockpiles must be politically acceptable by the community where the stockpile is being destroyed. The disposal technologies and strategies employed must ensure minimal impact on public and environmental health. The communities must be a part of the dialogue when planning for the development of decontamination facilities. Alternative methods to incineration must be sought. State investments in poor communities where multibillion dollar chemical cleanup operations are taking place need to continue, and open dialogue to build consensus, address issues, and obtain proper environmental permits also needs to take place.

Dr. Duane Linder, Director of Sandia National Laboratories, also acknowledges the importance of seeking new decontamination strategies due to environmental impacts. The primary methods of chemical disposal used to be “burn it, bury it, or dump it.” Now the approaches used to disengage these weapons and the materials used to fabricate the weapons focus on the use of a process called hydrolysis, a method where hot water is added to alter the molecular arrangement of the agent. While this process helps to neutralize the agent, hazmat chemical waste is still generated but is not as toxic as the original agent. The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, is a US built chemical destruction system that operates using the hydrolysis process.  The unit has been an incredible instrument involved in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Although still facing numerous challenges, Syria seems to possess the technologies needed to reach OPCW’s June 30th cleanup deadline. However, only time will tell if the international political dichotomy between the West and Russia will impede the process.


Image Credit: Todd Lopez,

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