Science
2:59 am
Thu October 31, 2013

Burn, Bury Or Scorch? Why Destroying Syria's Chemical Weapons Is Hard

Originally published on Thu October 31, 2013 11:04 am

International monitors announced Thursday that Syria has completely destroyed its equipment for making and filling chemical weapons. But the destruction of the chemicals themselves — more than 1,000 tons of toxic ingredients — is going to be a far more daunting task.

The problem is that it's just not as easy to destroy chemical weapons as it used to be. At the end of World War II, every major world power with chemical weapons loaded them onto ships and barges, and dumped them out at sea.

"The rough guesstimate is [that] probably 300,000 tons or more have been dumped in every ocean of the world, except the Antarctic," says Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, an environmental group that tracks the effects of weapons disposal.

The thinking at the time was that the deep ocean would be a safe place. Turns out it's not. Drums can leak dangerous toxins like mustard agents. In the years since, dumped compounds from chemical weapons have burned beachgoers and killed fishermen. Burying the weapons created just as many problems on land.

So in the late 1980s, when the U.S. and Russia decided to get rid of their huge Cold War-era caches, they tried something else: incineration. But it wasn't as straightforward as you might think, Walker says: "When you burn something, it doesn't just disappear, you know — it's physically impossible for everything to just disappear."

Incinerators had to be custom-built, along with chemical scrubbers that would clean the toxic exhaust. It took decades and cost billions of dollars.

Things moved more quickly in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The allies had to dispose of thousands of tons of Saddam Hussein's chemical agents. Most of it was done by incineration at a custom-built facility. But some of the munitions were too fragile or had been damaged during the allied air attacks.

Several 122 mm rockets filled with the nerve gas sarin posed a particular problem. They couldn't be safely moved or handled, says Ron Manley, the chemist who oversaw the destruction. "Therefore, the only way to destroy them was [this]: We created a fuel-air explosion, and these rockets were destroyed in the fuel-air explosion."

In other words, they blew them up. But Walker says this isn't an option in 2013.

"All open burn and open detonation [disposals] now [are] prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention," he says. "Ocean dumping is prohibited. Burial is prohibited."

It would take too long to set up an incinerator or other equipment in Syria, so today, the U.S. hopes that the agents can be moved out of the country.

"My hope is that much of this material will be moved as rapidly as possible into one location — hopefully on a ship — and removed from the region," Secretary of State John Kerry told NPR's Michele Kelemen in an interview earlier this month.

Experts agree it can be done. Virtually all of Syria's chemicals are ingredients, not weapons. That means they're toxic, but safer to transport. And there's a new technique for disposal. It's called hydrolysis, and it basically involves breaking the chemicals down, using hot water and other chemicals like bleach. The waste liquid from hydrolysis still needs to be treated but is a lot less dangerous.

The bottom line is that, after decades of practice, the disposal of chemical weapons can be done safely, says Walker. "It's done in Europe all the time, [and] in many ways — in France, in Belgium and Germany, in Italy," he says.

The key will be finding a country willing to accept chemicals from Syria. With environmental regulations these days, diplomacy — not technology — will be the hard part. Norway already has declined a U.S. invitation to take the stuff, in part due to its local environmental regulations. France, Belgium and Albania, which destroyed its own chemical stocks in 2007, are thought to still be under consideration.

The international community would like to see Syria's weapons destroyed by mid-2014. Given the challenges of finding a host country, that's "a very optimistic target," says Manley. Walker adds that the destruction methods will have to comply with environmental law, which could lengthen the process.

Still, he says it is critical that a host nation be found soon: "We can't just put it on a ship," Walker says, "and have it wander the Mediterranean for the indefinite future."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Syria's government met a deadline today. It has completely destroyed the equipment used to produce its chemical weapons. The organization responsible for overseeing the disarming of Syria's chemical weapons program, the OPCW, made that announcement this morning, which leaves the chemicals themselves - more than a thousand tons of them - to deal with. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, destroying those chemicals will be a lot more complicated.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's just not as easy to destroy chemical weapons as it used to be. And to understand why, look back to the end of World War II. The U.S., Russia, France, Germany, Japan, all had huge stockpiles.

PAUL WALKER: When the war ended, ships filled with this stuff went out of port all over the world.

BRUMFIEL: Paul Walker is with Green Cross International, an environmental group that tracks the impacts of weapons disposal. These ships dumped their toxic munitions overboard.

WALKER: The rough guestimate is probably 300,000 ton or more have been dumped in every ocean of the world, except the Antarctic.

BRUMFIEL: Thinking was the deep ocean would be a safe place. Turns out, it's not. Drums can leak dangerous toxins like mustard agent.

WALKER: Mustard, when it leaks, can ball up almost like a little jellyfish and roll up on the beaches. And so, there have been a lot of cases, particularly in the Baltic, where beachgoers have actually stepped in this stuff and been badly burned.

BRUMFIEL: Burying chemical weapons created just as many problems on land. So, in the late 1980s, when the U.S. and Russia decided to get rid of their huge Cold War caches, they tried something else: incineration. But...

WALKER: When you burn something, it doesn't mean it just disappears. You know, it's physically impossible for everything to just disappear.

BRUMFIEL: Incinerators had to be custom built, along with chemical scrubbers that would clean their toxic exhaust. It took decades and billions of dollars. Things moved more quickly in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The allies had to dispose of thousands of tons of chemical agents.

Ron Manley was the chemist who oversaw their destruction. Mainly, it was done through incineration. But some rockets containing the nerve gas sarin couldn't be moved. So Manley and his team tried something else.

RON MANLEY: We created a fuel-air explosion, and these rockets were destroyed in the fuel-air explosion.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, they blew them up. But environmentalist Walker says it's not an option in 2013.

WALKER: All open burn and open detonation now is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Ocean dumping is prohibited. Burial is prohibited.

BRUMFIEL: So what to do in Syria?

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: My hope is that much of this material will be moved as rapidly possible into one location, and hopefully on a ship, and removed from the region.

BRUMFIEL: That was Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to NPR earlier this month. Experts agree it can be done. Virtually all of Syria's chemicals are ingredients, not weapons. They're toxic, but safer to transport. And there's a new technique for disposal: mix the chemicals with hot water and other chemicals like bleach.

WALKER: And stir them around like soup for a good period of time, and then you can release and catch all the liquid.

BRUMFIEL: That liquid must be treated, but it's a lot less dangerous. So, bottom line...

WALKER: It can be done. It's done in Europe all the time, in many ways in France, in Belgium and Germany, in Italy.

BRUMFIEL: The key will be finding a country willing to accept a toxic shipment from Syria. Diplomacy, not technology, is the challenge. Still, there aren't a lot of other options.

WALKER: We can't put it on a ship and just have it wander the Mediterranean for the indefinite future.

BRUMFIEL: The international community hopes to finalize its plan for the destruction of Syria's chemicals by mid-November.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.