How to (Make Chemical Weapons) Disappear Completely

By Greg Mercer

Let’s say you’ve just had an authoritarian leader surrender his chemical weapons stockpile to you, or you’re a major world power and you’ve agreed to eliminate your chemical arsenal. How do you destroy chemical weapons?

Chemical weapons became a global security issue in the early 20th century. They were most famously used in World War I, though some early international efforts were made to prevent their use before they were actually developed and used. The horrors of their use in World War I is frequently credited with preventing their use in later conflicts (though hardly comprehensively; the Holocaust saw their pervasive use, and Iraq is no stranger to chemical weapons, to name but two examples). The modern chemical weapons prohibition as we know it, however, came to be with the 1990 Chemical Weapons Accord and 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. These agreements thoroughly strengthened the chemical weapons control regime, and the latter created the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

So, when chemical weapons need destroying, there are a few options to turn to. Two methods are commonly employed in the U.S.: incineration and neutralization.

Incineration is the Department of Defense’s (DoD) preferred method. Chemical munitions are drained from their delivery mechanisms and burned, rendering the end products either harmless or controllable. Empty warheads and shells are treated to the same heat to ensure the offending substances are completely destroyed. Incineration takes place at a handful of sites in Utah, Alabama, Oregon, and the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific.

Alternatively, the DoD has neutralized chemical agents via chemical hydrolysis, where water and a caustic agent are mixed with the agent, rendering it inert. VX nerve agent being stored in Newport, Indiana was destroyed this way. Once the process is complete, the end product must be stored.

Chemical weapons weren’t always disposed of so carefully, though. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) cites at least 74 instances of the U.S. dumping chemical weapons at sea from 1918 to 1970. Soviet dumping was prolific but poorly documented. This was banned internationally by a 1972 convention but could still have latent effects. Deaths and injuries from exposure to chemical agents have been recorded among fishermen. When militaries dumped chemical weapons into the oceans, little thought was given to whether they would stay in one place or be distributed by currents. In 2007, the Congressional Research Service prepared a report for Congress on dealing with future ramifications from the dumping. The latent effects remain to be seen.

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