Wednesday, May 16, 2012

19 May 2011 – Chemical Weapons Destruction update


Between spending most of the past week writing a paper on the status of Libya’s chemical weapons (CW) destruction process in the context of the current crisis in that country, and wasting two fantastic hours last Saturday watching The Destroyer melt Acuras with his face, the word “destruction” has been on my mind a lot lately. 

Figure 1 - In Asgard, they understand that incineration is far superior to hydrolysis as a CW destruction methodology

So it’s not surprising that, whilst perusing the riveting Gossip and Style sections of the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday last, a headline all but jumped out at me: “Last of bulk mustard gas destroyed at Deseret Chemical Depot.”(Note A)  This naturally drew my attention away from the neighbouring article, which described the remarkable case of a chap ingesting his 25,000th Big Mac a mere 39 years after consuming his first, and caused me to dig into my back-files on the US chemical weapons programme to refresh my memory.

Deseret is one of the facilities that’s a plague to dabblers in the CW world, because it’s one of two names applied to what is essentially the same place.  Technically, the name of the facility is the ”Deseret Chemical Depot”, but due to the fact that it’s associated with the Toelle Army Depot and is located in Toelle, Utah, it tends to get referred to in international fora, and from time to time even by the Americans, as “Toelle” (pronounced “Two-Ella”).  Although not the oldest CW-related site in the US (that honour belongs to Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland), Toelle is far and away the largest.  When the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, the depot held more than 13,600 tons of CW agent - roughly half of the entire declared US stockpile - in close to a million different containers and projectiles. 

Figure 2: The US CW Stockpile at entry-into-force, 1997

The grand total of munitions stored at the depot was staggering:

H, HD, HT (Mustard)
105 mm artillery shells: 54,663
155 mm artillery shells: 63,568

GB (Sarin)
105 mm artillery shells: 798,703
155 mm artillery shells: 89,141
M-55 free-flight artillery rockets: 17,353

155 mm artillery shells: 53,216
M-55 free-flight artillery rockets: 3,966
M23 land mines: 22,690

Additionally, the depot also held blister and nerve agent in one-ton bulk storage containers and spray tanks. 

Figure 2 - 1-ton containers of distilled mustard (HD) stored at the Deseret depot, 1998 (there’s more mustard in this picture than Libya has left in its stockpile)

Such a vast quantity of weaponry and toxic chemicals - much of it aging (some of the mustard dated to the Second World War, while the depot also held quantities of pre-WWII Lewisite, as well quantities of Tabun(GA) that had been captured from the Nazis during the War) - posed a wide variety of challenges to destruction.  Mustard, for example, tends to polymerize (thicken) in storage, becoming first gluey, then gelling, and finally taking on the consistency of a hockey puck.  This makes it impossible to destroy by hydrolysis, necessitating incineration.  However, due to the nature of production processes used at the time the mustard was synthesized, a good deal of it turned out to be contaminated with mercury, imposing much tighter emissions controls and necessitating the installation of very fine filters, scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators on the incineration equipment (and consequently pushing costs through the roof; at last report, the US CW destruction programme was projected to cost well over $40B by the time it is complete in a decade or so).  Different agents and weapons posed different problems; one-ton containers tend to be easy to drain and destroy, while artillery shells have to be defuzed and drilled first.  Land mines contain fuzes, too.  Worst of all were the M-55 rockets, which - because they have thin-walled aluminum bodies - tend to develop leaks, making them horrible to handle, and which contain fuzes, rocket motors, high explosives and batteries.  The technology that had to be developed to demilitarize VX-filled M-55 rockets was nothing short of staggering.

Unlike the Russians, the US tackled the hard stuff - the mines, shells and rockets - first, and left the easy stuff (the ton containers) for the end.  Completion of the bulk mustard destruction process therefore means that Toelle is getting near to the end of a programme that got underway in 1996, before the Convention even came into effect.  Only a small quantity of munitions remain to be destroyed, among them about 350 shells where the mustard was so badly polymerized that it was impossible to remove the agent from the projectiles.  Such problem cases tend to be destroyed by contained explosion in specially-built mobile destruction facilities.

Figure 4 - the US Army Chemical Materials Agency’s Explosive Destruction System (EDS) can safely detonate and decontaminate up to 6 CW projectiles at once

The staff at Deseret also plan to destroy the above-mentioned Lewisite and Tabun munitions by early next year.  Once this has been taken care of, all that will remain at Deseret are the “solid waste management pits” - old munitions dumps dating from decades ago, when munitions were destroyed in the open air (which is now forbidden by the Convention).  Most of the personnel will be transferred to the Toelle Army Depot, and the destruction facility will be closed.

The impending closure of the Deseret/Toelle CWDF brings up an interesting problem that the States Parties to the Convention will have to wrestle with at this year’s Conference of the States Parties (coming up in Nov-Dec 2011 in The Hague).  In 2009, there were 13 CW destruction facilities (CWDFs) in operation around the world: one in India, four in Russia, and eight in the US.  India has since completed its destruction programme and closed its CWDF, and the destruction operations at Kambarka in Russia, and at Newport, Indiana and Dugway, Utah have likewise come to a close.  Libya began destroying chemical precursors at its CWDF (at Rabta, with three sub-sites at Ruwagha east of Waddan, about 700 km southeast of Tripoli) last May, and commenced mustard destruction there last fall, which was going well up until the hydrolysis equipment broke down and repair parts could not be obtained due to the present crisis.

The decline in destruction activities is inevitable as CW stockpiles continue to fall; more than 62% of all declared CW have been destroyed to date; and it is relevant because the vast bulk of inspection activity conducted by the OPCW - more than 85% of inspector-days - is related to continuous monitoring and verification at the destruction facilities.  Article VI (or “Industry”) verification accounts for only about 1/6 of the Organization’s inspection activities.  Once all the weapons are gone, not nearly as many inspectors will be needed.

But it won’t be a smooth decline.  The final deadline for destruction of all CW is 29 April 2012.  Both Russia and the US have advised that they are likely to miss this deadline, probably by many years (and it now looks like Libya could miss it, too).  The difficulty from the perspective of the Organization is that CWDFs that have been operating for many years now are coming to the end of their programmes, while some others - for example, at Kizner and Pochep in Russia, and at Blue Grass, Arkansas and Pueblo, Colorado in the US - are still under construction, and in some cases won’t commence operations for years.(Note B)  As a result, there is going to be a gap of several years during which there will be a much smaller need for continuous monitoring and verification at CWDFs than there has been for the past 14 years.  This means that the OPCW is going to have to cope with direction from the States Parties to significantly downsize both the Inspectorate and its operational budget for 2-3 years (or even longer, if construction on new CWDFs proceeds slowly) - and then will have to expand both again once the new facilities begin destruction operations.
This won’t be easy; trained chemical munitions specialists are no longer common, because there are no longer any large CW programmes in the world.  The generation that supplied inspectors to UNSCOM, UNMOVIC and the first generation of the OPCW is retiring.  The OPCW now has to make inspectors instead of simply hiring them with years of experience.  Unfortunately, there is no alternative to downsizing; States Parties will not accept having the Inspectorate grossly underemployed for several years; and although it would be highly desirable to reorient allocated inspector-hours to Industry verification, for political reasons this would be impossible.  Every year the Technical Secretariat attempts to increase the number of Industry inspections by 5-10 (there were 208 Article VI inspections in 2009, but more are required, the argument being that the true threat of CW proliferation is no longer at CW storage and destruction facilities, but rather at small, flexible, multipurpose batch production plants), and every year it takes days of intensive wrangling between States Parties to agree on the total number of Article VI inspections - generally with the Western European and Other Group (WEOG) demanding more inspections, and the Non-Aligned Movement, led or goaded on by India, Cuba, South Africa, Iran and China, demanding fewer inspections (often as leverage to wring more Article XI, or “Economic and Technological Development”, money out of the Organization - but that’s a topic for another CoP).  So simply quintupling or sextupling the number of Industry inspections to keep the Inspectorate busy, however desirable it might be, is just not an option.

The wrap-up of the bulk mustard destruction programme at Deseret illustrates how time moves on, things change, and international organizations - if they want to remain relevant - have to change with them.  Dealing with the downsizing of the Inspectorate, a significant trimming of the Organization’s budget (in 2009, verification accounted for €34.9M of the Organization’s expenditures of €71.3M - Note C), and the impending non-compliance of the US, Russia and possibly Libya with the Convention’s destruction obligations, are sure to make for fascinating fodder at this year’s Conference of States Parties. 
A good thing, too, because as some of you probably know from first-hand experience, Den Haag in December is a lot more like Jotunheim than Asgard.



C) ibid., 63.