Destroying Chemical Weapons*

by Pepper Hamilton LLP
Contact

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.

Written by:

Pepper Hamilton LLP
Contact
more
less

Pepper Hamilton LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.
Feedback? Tell us what you think of the new jdsupra.com!