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

Workers in protective suits hold dummy munition during a demonstration at a chemical weapons disposal facility in Muenster, Germany, on Wednesday.
Philipp Guelland
AFP/Getty Images
Workers in protective suits hold dummy munition during a demonstration at a chemical weapons disposal facility in Muenster, Germany, on Wednesday.

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."

After the first Gulf War with Iraq, a U.N. team blew up rockets that had been filled with sarin.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
After the first Gulf War with Iraq, a U.N. team blew up rockets that had been filled with sarin.

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."

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.