United States: Destroying Chemical Weapons*

Last Updated: October 15 2013
Article by William J. Walsh

The destruction of chemical warfare material is prominent in the news today due to the documented use of sarin (i.e., isopropyl methyl phosphonofluoridate) by the Syrian government against its own citizens and the United Nations' resolution requiring the immediate destruction of these weapons. Unfortunately, Syria is not likely to be the only example of the need to demilitarize the chemical warfare material submitted to international control in areas of armed conflict.

I have had the honor of serving pro bono from 1998 through 2012 on seven National Research Council (NRC) expert committees that have issued detailed reports recommending to the U.S. Army methods of: (a) improving the effectiveness of chemical warfare material destruction technologies; (b) reducing the environmental impacts; and (c) ensuring the safety of workers during the destruction of materials from the U.S. chemical weapons arsenal. I have also served a six-year term on the NRC's Standing Committee on Chemical Demilitarization, which provided real-time advice to the Army on chemical weapons issues and proposed topics for more detailed studies.

It is timely to review the lessons learned from the U.S. program to destroy chemical weapons that may be relevant in Syria (in my opinion). This experience is relevant to the advantages and disadvantages of the technologies that are available for accessing Syrian chemical weapons and rendering the chemical agent incapable of being used as a weapon. However, it is wrong to assume that the demilitarization of Syrian chemical agents will or should take as long, cost as much, or need to satisfy U.S. environmental laws and congressional mandates that have lengthened the time frame and driven up the cost of destroying the U.S. chemical weapons.

The Issues

Among the issues that need to be addressed are:

  • Locating and verifying that the Syrian government has relinquished control of all of the chemical warfare material (i.e., the actual chemical agent, the weapons used to deliver the chemical agent, and the production facilities). News accounts report an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical agent, primarily in storage containers.
  • Determining where the destruction will occur and which country or international entity will perform the destruction. Historically, the chemical warfare materials are destroyed by the country responsible for their creation, but the international treaty inspectors maintain close oversight of the process. In areas subject to armed conflict, it is assumed that the United States will (and should) supply technical assistance and advice to the international weapons inspectors, particularly to verify the destruction of the chemical agent.
  • Determining what technology or combination of technologies will be utilized to destroy the agent.
  • Determining what technologies will be needed to destroy the waste generated from the destruction of the chemical agent.

Each of these steps has their own political, technological, and security challenges, to say the least. The remainder of this article focuses primarily on the technologies available and their potential application in Syria.

The Potential Destruction Technologies

As important as it is to have these weapons under international control, the best control is to destroy the agent as quickly as possible. Removing chemical agent from a munition is not a trivial task, since a chemical weapon often has explosive rocket propellant at one end and explosives used to disperse the chemical agent at the other end, and Syrian chemical weapons may be configured differently than the U.S. weapons.

The chemical agent destruction can be carried out via:

  1. Incineration (i.e., heating the molecules to such high temperatures in the presence of oxygen that the molecules are broken apart into less harmful substances). A significant amount of the U.S. chemical agents were incinerated. There are mobile incinerators that have destroyed hazardous waste. In Syria, one could use an existing incinerator (if one is available), build an incinerator solely for the Syrian stockpile (although that would take a long time) or bring in a mobile incinerator.
  2. Explosive detonation, which breaks up the agent molecules using an explosion in a containment device. Typically, these devices are transportable and are used to destroy a chemical agent that is already in a weapon. They include:
    • the U.S. Army's Explosive Destruction System (EDS)
    • commercial explosive destruction technologies (e.g., the Static Detonation Chamber, which was developed in Sweden and Germany)
    • the Japanese DAVINCH technology, which is being used in the Netherlands, Japan, and the People's Republic of China, and
    • the Transportable Detonation Chamber (TDC) developed by CH2MHill.
  3. Neutralization, which relatively quickly breaks apart the molecules of a chemical agent by adding a neutralizing chemical that interacts with the chemical agent.
    • Neutralization was used or is planned to be used at a number of U.S. facilities.
    • In addition to fixed facilities, the United States developed transportable neutralization systems (e.g., the U.S. Army's Large Item Transportable Access and Neutralization System (LITANS) and its Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS). The EDS transportable system also utilizes neutralization, following explosive force.
    • Experts are likely to assess the feasibility of converting the existing Syrian chemical agent production facilities into chemical agent neutralization facilities. This may take longer to start up than a transportable neutralization unit, but it may be more hardened and easier to defend.

Each of the technologies discussed above have been used by the U.S. Army and in a variety of locations, except for the FDHS, which is relatively new. Each of these technologies (alone or in combination) has advantages and disadvantages. The ultimate selection of the appropriate technologies to use in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons will be based on an assessment of all of the facts, particularly, the amount of chemical agent these technologies can destroy per day, the speed with which they can be deployed, and the degree to which they need to be transportable. These considerations are significant and cannot be assessed without more information.

The most important factor is that once the chemical agent is destroyed using any of the aforementioned technologies, it can no longer be used as a chemical weapon by any party (i.e., it is no longer a chemical weapon). All that remains are, in essence, hazardous wastes, which need to be disposed of properly, but not with the urgency of chemical agent. Often in the United States, this last stage has caused delays.

Clearly, there are many obstacles to this endeavor. As challenging as the technical difficulties of destroying the chemical agent may be, they are probably the least of the obstacles.

* All the information in this article is from public sources, National Research Council reports and news articles. The article cites the results of NRC reports, but none of the opinions expressed in this article reflect the official opinion of the NRC, the scientists who have served on the committees that have studied the destruction of U.S. chemical warfare material, or Pepper Hamilton LLP.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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William J. Walsh
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