DOD Offers Help to Meet Syria Chemical Weapon Deadline

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2013 – The Defense Department has offered the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons a technical solution for removing the worst chemical weapons from war-torn Syria by Dec. 31 and is readying the capability for early January if the OPCW accepts, senior defense officials said here today.

Speaking on background to reporters at the Pentagon, the officials described what they called a field-deployable hydrolysis system, or a system that uses heat, water and bleach-like chemicals to turn some chemical weapon components into low-level hazardous waste that can be commercially stored in accordance with environmental laws.

“Last winter, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed Undersecretary Frank Kendall to chair a senior integration group to look at technologies that could be applied to the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile because we knew at some point the international community would need capabilities to destroy the stockpile,” a senior official said.

The OPCW has performed a thorough inspection of the Syrian stockpile, the official said, adding that the quantity is in the hundreds of tons.

The chemicals DOD will help destroy will be mustard gas, an agent that blisters the skin and injures tissues, and components of the nerve agents sarin and VX, the official said. The stockpile is mostly in bulk liquid storage, not in filled artillery shells or munitions.

“Based on that understanding we analyzed various technologies including incineration and decided to use a proven technology that we had a lot of experience with in U.S. cases where we had to deal with bulk liquid chemicals of this nature in Newport, Ind., and in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., in the 2000s,” the official said.

The technology is a hydrolysis system or neutralization technology, he explained, which essentially mixes the chemicals with water and sodium hypochlorite bleach and produces a very low-level waste or effluent.

“We’ve used this proven technology, but then designed it in a way that it would be transportable. The heart of the field-deployable hydrolysis system fits within two standard shipping containers,” the official said.

“At the time we designed it to be geography independent and user independent,” he added. “We just didn’t know whether it would be used on land in a neighboring country — perhaps even inside Syria in support of some multinational effort or, as we’ve now come to, on a ship at sea.”

Last winter the Defense Department began a rapid acquisition effort to fabricate the field-deployable hydrolysis system units, the official said, adding that three units are now fully fabricated.

Two units are being outfitted onto a vessel called the Cape Ray from the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration. If the OPCW accepts DOD’s offer, the ship will be used for neutralization operations at sea next year, at a location to be determined, the official said.

The hydrolysis units are being mounted below deck inside an enclosure with special carbon filters, along with an analytical laboratory. Ship personnel are being trained and the ship is being prepared to sail early next year, the official added.

As neutralization operations are being conducted aboard the ship, they will be verified by OPCW inspectors, the official said. Also aboard will be about 100 DOD civilians and contractors, including ship operators, security personnel and others.

“Nothing will be dumped at sea,” the defense official said. “The inert byproduct [of the neutralization process] will be treated to reduce its acidity and then stored in international-standards-organization approved containers and kept on the ship until their eventual disposition at a commercial waste-treatment facility.”

To ensure the chemicals are packaged in accordance with international standards for shipping such hazardous chemicals, the department last week provided the United Nations with more than 2,000 proper containers, he said.

The Defense Department has decades of experience in the chemical demilitarization business, the senior defense official said.

“We have programs underway to destroy our own Cold War chemical weapons arsenal and we’ve helped other countries through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program,” he said.

“We’ve worked with the Russian Federation to help them build a chemical weapons destruction facility at Shchuch´ye which is used today to destroy Russia’s nuclear weapons,” the official said, adding, “We’ve also worked with Albania to destroy chemical weapons that were left over from the Cold War, and we’ve worked with Libya.”

Details of the process are still being worked out, but the senior defense official said the next step will be to have an international partner support the OPCW Joint Mission, which consists of the U.N. and the OPCW, by receiving about 150 shipping containers of chemicals at the port of Latakia in Syria, and then at another place that has not yet been determined.

From that point, they would be transferred to the Cape Ray, which would take from 45 to 90 days to destroy the chemicals, the official said.

“In terms of the timing, the U.S.-Russian Framework Agreement and the Security Council Resolution and the relevant OPCW Executive Council decisions lay out target dates,” he added, “and our goal of course is to meet those target dates of destruction by June.”

Another senior defense official said the department sees the assistance offered to OPCW as an international effort.

“There are many opportunities for countries to contribute, both to the funds that have been established by the United Nations and the OPCW but also directly to the destruction effort,” the senior official said, “and we are engaging with partners to pull that group together.”

The Syrians are taking the process very seriously, the official added.

“They’ve recognized that they bear a lot of responsibility for getting the materials safely delivered and they’re working closely with the OPCW, the U.N. and the Joint Mission to conduct that part of the operation safely and effectively,” the official said.

“Obviously it’s a challenging environment and they’re working through that and taking security into consideration every day,” the official added.

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinAFPS)
 

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