U.S. officials prepare to destroy Syrian chemical weapons at sea

If all goes according to plan, the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks could be destroyed early next year inside the specially modified hold of a U.S. ship somewhere at sea, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

Spurned by one country after another in recent weeks, the roughly 1,000 metric tons of toxins may be eliminated miles away from any port, under the supervision of trained U.S. technicians in protective suits — assuming that the plan is accepted by the international chemical weapons watchdog overseeing the project, the officials said.

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Pentagon officials are making modifications to a leased cargo ship called the MV Cape Ray — part of the U.S. maritime reserve fleet — fitting it with machines that convert toxic chemicals into relatively harmless liquids. The vessel and its equipment are expected to be ready for sea trials later this month and could begin processing Syrian nerve-agent precursors and mustard gas in January.

A senior Defense Department official called the destruction process safe and “environmentally sound.”

“Absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters about the sensitive mission.

The plan could restore momentum to the international effort to rid Syria of all its chemical weapons, preventing them from being used in attacks inside the country or as terrorist weapons outside the country. After weeks of rapid progress, the effort appeared at risk of falling behind schedule after Albania and Norway publicly rejected requests to host decontamination activity. Negotiations with other countries also failed to bear fruit.

But even while seeking a host country willing to dispose of the chemicals on land, U.S. officials had been quietly preparing for the possibility of performing the mission at sea, designing a mobile system similar to the ones that safely destroyed thousands of tons of U.S. chemical weapons manufactured during the Cold War, the defense official said. The mobile units, designed to fit inside two standard shipping containers, would operate in an enclosed space inside the Cape Ray’s hold, under the supervision of trained Defense Department employees.

The end product — a highly diluted but still mildly toxic liquid — would be transported to a commercial waste-disposal facility that has not been identified.

“This is a proven technology,” the defense official said. “The chemicals and the reactions are very well understood.”

Independent experts agreed that operating the disposal machines on water should not entail any special risks.

“The rig won’t know that it’s on a ship instead of dry land,” said Michael Kuhlman, a chemist and chief scientist in the national security division at Battelle, a company that has assisted in the destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. “The more potentially challenging parts of this operation will be the transport of such high-hazard materials through an active conflict zone [and] loading at a port facility not likely well equipped for any accident.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently expressed grave concern about the safety of inspectors overseeing the transfer of the chemical weapons stocks.

Defense officials said another country — whose identity has not been disclosed — had agreed to pick up the toxic cargo at Syria’s Latakia port and transfer the chemicals to the Cape Ray outside Syrian territorial waters. No U.S. personnel would be dispatched to Syria for the operation, they said.

The U.S. plan must be formally blessed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group that is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile. Syria, which agreed to give up its toxic arsenal under the threat of a U.S. military strike, has been largely cooperative, granting access to its chemical weapons sites and facilitating the destruction inside the country of machines used to mix deadly chemicals and load them into artillery shells and rockets.

Once the bulk liquids are destroyed, OPCW officials still face a formidable task in destroying Syria’s small number of rockets and artillery shells already loaded with sarin.

 
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