Chemical weapons experts are criticizing the Defense Department’s plan to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal aboard a U.S. vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, a proposal that Pentagon officials have described as low-risk.
The plan calls for neutralizing the liquid components of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent via hydrolysis, a technology that has been used for decades to destroy chemical agents in the U.S. and abroad but never at sea.
“There’s no precedence. We’re all guessing. We’re all estimating,” said Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who worked as a U.N. biological weapons inspector in Iraq in 1994.
“For example, you don’t know if the sarin is pure. The Iraqi sarin was rather impure, and had a lot of contaminants, and we don’t know if that’s amenable to hydrolysis,” said Mr. Zilinskas, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies at Middlebury College.
Under the Pentagon plan, the toxic stockpile would be transported to the Syrian port of Latakia, loaded onto a non-U.S. vessel and shipped to a third country. From there, a U.S. cargo ship would take the arsenal to sea for destruction.
Richard M. Lloyd, a warhead technology consultant at Tesla Laboratories Inc. who tracks weapons being used in Syria, said he has little confidence in the regime’s ability to transport the weapons safely.
“The probability that rebels are going to attack is very high,” Mr. Lloyd said. “They want to get their hands on them, or destroy something or do something that’s not good.”
The Pentagon has proposed sending about 60 civilian workers and contractors to the Middle East early next year to destroy the chemical stockpile. Specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is tasked with overseeing the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arms program, would assist in the mission.
The organization has not given formal approval to any plan, but defense officials said its plan likely will be chosen to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for removing the “priority one” chemical weapons, which are to be destroyed by June.
Defense officials say they would use two mobile hydrolysis units to neutralize the arsenal and would carry spare parts aboard the ship in case the system fails.
Mr. Zilinskas said no risk assessments are being conducted of the plan’s impact on people and the environment, as would be done if the chemicals were to be destroyed on land.
“You don’t know if there could be an accident and how you would handle it,” he said. “In normal conditions, when we’re setting some sort of toxic elimination plan, there would have to be risk assessments done of the impact on the people and the environment. Obviously, that’s not being done here.”
For an operation at sea, the U.S. should conduct a risk assessment with the International Maritime Organization, Mr. Zilinskas said.
A defense official who requested anonymity to discuss the issue freely said that “planning continues for every aspect of the [Department of Defense’s] involvement in the joint mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. I do not believe a specific risk assessment is being conducted at this time; however, we are certainly considering and will address all possible risks to safely carry out the mission.”
A sea trial is planned for later this month, the official said.
Defense officials said an alternative proposal to incinerate the arsenal would not meet the deadline and likely would have to be carried out on land, which would create political and security issues. Four nations already have refused to allow for the destruction within their borders.
“No country wants these chemical weapons to be transported across their territory,” Mr. Zilinskas said.
On Tuesday, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said his government is considering participating in the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal — but only if the public does not oppose it.
If the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons approves the Pentagon plan, about 60 civilian defense workers and inspectors would board the U.S. cargo ship Cape Ray early next year to destroy the arsenal, which would take 45 to 90 days. The waste byproducts would be disposed of at a commercial treatment facility that has yet to be determined.
No U.S. troops would be aboard the vessel, but the U.S. and its allies will provide security for the ship during its mission. Officials did not offer a cost estimate for the plan, but analysts speculate that it would be as much as $70 million.
The operation’s cost would be covered as an “in-kind contribution from the government of the United States,” a senior defense official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
A U.S.-Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program by mid-2014 averted U.S. plans for military strikes on Syria after the regime used chemical weapons against rebels in August, killing about 1,400 people, including many children.
Officials insist the plan is safe and environmentally sound.
“The chemicals and their reactions are well understood,” the senior defense official said. “The Department of Defense has decades of experience in chemical demilitarization programs.
“Absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea,” the official added.
Defense officials said the risks are “very low” but acknowledged that transporting the chemicals could be risky, as Syria’s civil war enters its third year with no signs of abatement.
“Technically, there are no problems with this plan as long as containers are used that are impervious to chemical weapons — which are often corrosive — and that they are well-packaged under guidelines that the U.S. uses to contain and transport chemical weapons,” said a government scientist with knowledge of the plan who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
“What is happening in the country outside of the containers might be an issue,” the scientist said.
Hundreds of tons of chemical agents are stored in about 150 shipping containers that will need to be transported within the war-torn country to Latakia, officials said.
“Obviously, it’s a challenging environment,” a senior defense official said. “The Syrians are taking the process very seriously. They’re working closely with [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], the U.N. and the joint mission to conduct that part of the operation safely and effectively.”