If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Chemical Weapons Deadline At Risk

Russia, even U.S., is not likely to destroy arsenals completely by 2012 as mandated by treaty

by Lois R. Ember
April 17, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 16

Opening Ceremony
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Traditional signs of hospitality, bread and salt, are offered to Russian officials by young women in native Udmurt costumes on March 1, when the Kambarka chemical weapons destruction facility began full-scale operations.
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Traditional signs of hospitality, bread and salt, are offered to Russian officials by young women in native Udmurt costumes on March 1, when the Kambarka chemical weapons destruction facility began full-scale operations.

Russia and the U.S. are losing a marathon struggle to dispose of their vast arsenals of chemical weapons by April 29, 2012, the last deadline set by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Treaty for ridding the world of a whole class of weapons.

The treaty requires countries possessing chemical weapons to declare them to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the treaty-implementing agency. Six countries did so, says Rogelio Pfirter, OPCW's director general. In addition to the U.S. and Russia, he names Albania, India, Libya, and "an unidentified state party" generally known to be South Korea as having declared small holdings.

In September 2005, Pfirter thought the latter four countries would meet the treaty's 2007 deadline for destroying their stocks. Albania, as it turns out, may be the only one to do so, says a U.S. government source who worked at OPCW but whose present position does not allow him to be quoted by name. Pfirter also expected the U.S. and Russia to ask for the five-year extension to 2012 that the treaty allows.

Even with the extension, Pfirter said both countries would have difficulty meeting the 2012 deadline. Many observers, he said, "believe that Russia will never make it and even the U.S. will be in an extremely difficult position to comply."

The reasons are really quite simple. The sheer size of the stockpiles and the demanding and sometimes confounding nature of the selected destruction technologies make destroying these weapons a daunting challenge.

Russia declared a stockpile of 40,000 tons, nearly a third larger than the U.S.'s 31,500 tons. After agonizing deliberation, Russia selected neutralization as the primary technology it would use to destroy its variety of chemical agents.

The U.S., on the other hand, elected to incinerate most of its arsenal and, over the years, has faced nagging engineering problems. When communities vociferously resisted incineration, the U.S. turned to neutralization followed by biodegradation or supercritical water oxidation. Still, ultimate disposal of the second-stage by-products is posing a problem for the Army, the lead agency for the destruction of the U.S.'s chemical arsenal.

Despite difficulties, the U.S. has destroyed nearly 39% of its stocks; the Russians, a bit under 3%. In testimony before a Senate committee in April 2005, Donald A. Mahley, deputy assistant secretary for arms control implementation at the Department of State, admitted that the U.S. and Russia would likely not meet the 2012 deadline and, therefore, would be in noncompliance with the treaty. About Russia, he said, "It would be a major challenge for Russia to have even half of its declared stockpile destroyed by 2012."

Sharing Info
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Troops meet with an official at Green Cross Russia's information and outreach center (left), which is in the administration building (right) for the town of Mirny, just outside the Maradykovsky chemical weapons destruction facility.
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Troops meet with an official at Green Cross Russia's information and outreach center (left), which is in the administration building (right) for the town of Mirny, just outside the Maradykovsky chemical weapons destruction facility.

In public statements and in presentations to OPCW, Russia continues to insist that it will destroy all chemical stocks located at seven storage sites by 2012. And it is recently backing up its pronouncements with money. Russian funding for chemical weapons dismantlement has climbed more than threefold from $186 million in 2004 to $644 million this year. The U.S. has to date invested more than $35 billion in its destruction efforts.

Funding increases aside, just last month Russia informed OPCW that it would destroy 45% of its stockpile by the end of 2009, leaving less than three years to eliminate the remaining 55%. By contrast, the U.S. expects to meet the 45% target by Dec. 31, 2007.

Russia estimates that it will cost about $8 billion to destroy its entire stockpile. Paul F. Walker, director of the Legacy Program for Global Green USA, an environmental organization, believes "the cost could easily rise 20%, to $10 billion." Russia plans to allocate $5.7 billion to the destruction of its chemical arsenal and hopes foreign assistance will make up the difference.

In 2002, the so-called G-8 industrialized nations agreed to set up the Global Partnership program to contribute $20 billion over a 10-year period to help Russia dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. The partnership, now two dozen countries strong, has allocated about $1.8 billion and committed up to $2.2 billion to Russia's chemical weapons destruction efforts. The U.S. alone, under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, has appropriated nearly $1 billion to help Russia build a VX nerve-agent destruction facility at Shchuch'ye in Kurgan Oblast (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 19).

By December 2005, Global Partnership aid had allowed Russia to destroy its 1,145-ton stockpile of lewisite (ClCHCHAsCl2), mustard gas [S(CH2CH2Cl)2], and lewisite-mustard gas mixtures at Gorny, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow in Saratov Oblast. These agents were reacted with monoethanolamine, and OPCW considered them destroyed because the neutralized by-product contained no measurable treaty-listed chemical warfare agent or its direct precursor. The by-product, or what the Russians term "reaction mass," is still toxic and requires further treatment before it can be disposed of.

Russian officials have released no information on when or how they will deal with the reaction mass, now several times larger than the original lewisite tonnage. They have said they plan to recover arsenic from the arsenic-based blistering agent because they believe there's a market for the metal, perhaps as rat poison or to produce gallium arsenide for computer chips. No one else believes so.

Unlike Russia's huge stocks of lewisite, the U.S. has only "10 1-ton containers of lewisite, and all of this is stored at the Tooele, Utah, disposal site," awaiting a decision on how to destroy it, says Greg Mahall, a spokesman for the Army's Chemical Materials Agency (CMA). Each container actually holds less than 1 ton of agent, Mahall says, so "out of a total stockpile of 31,500 tons, less than 10 tons are lewisite."

Defense Department spokeswoman Susan Idziak says, "A final decision on how the U.S. will destroy lewisite at Tooele has not been made and will not be addressed until the destruction of the mustard agent stockpile at Tooele is completed." Tooele stores its bulk mustard agent in some 6,400 1-ton containers, and what the Army calls its "mustard campaign" to destroy the agent is now under way. The completed campaign will "go a long way to helping the U.S. meet its 2007 deadline for destroying 45%" of its arsenal, Mahall explains.

The U.S. has no interest in recovering arsenic from its small lewisite stocks. Instead, under the latest method being considered, "lewisite would be treated with sodium permanganate to precipitate out a manganese oxide-arsenic solid" says Al Seitzinger, a systems engineer in CMA's Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel Project. The precipitated solid might then be encased in cement for likely disposal in a permitted hazardous waste landfill. The remaining liquid would be neutralized and then, perhaps, "injected in a deep well," Seitzinger says.

On March 1, Russia began full-scale operations at its second destruction facility at Kambarka in the Udmurt Republic, about 750 miles east of Moscow. Here, 6,360 tons of bulk lewisite is stored in 80 railroad tank cars.

Russia is using sodium hydroxide to destroy this lewisite. Last year, the neutralization process was tested under the auspices of the Russian Federal Agency for Industry, and 1.7 tons of lewisite was successfully destroyed. Assuming no major complications, the stockpile should be destroyed by the end of 2009.

The destruction facility was built with the financial and technical assistance of several Western countries and the European Union within the Global Partnership. Germany was the principal contributor, investing more than $190 million in the project. The facility, which will eventually eliminate 15.9% of Russia's total chemical arsenal, is located not far from the rural town of Kambarka, whose population is 15,000.

According to a trip report written by Walker and Janina de Guzman, Global Green's Legacy Program associate, the residents are "anxious and wary about, though not against, chemical weapons destruction." Residents, they write, are frustrated by unanswered questions about the neutralization technology to be used and the treatment of the toxic by-products of that technology.

Walker and de Guzman say Kambarka is typical of many of Russia's impoverished rural towns: Unemployment is high, morale is low, and the Soviet-era infrastructure is crumbling.

Citizens' concerns for their safety and health remain high, Walker and de Guzman say. Residents point to the lack of equipment for and the few professionals needed to staff a renovated school and the newly built medical diagnostic center and emergency-response facility. And they find especially troubling the dilapidated state of the town's roads, which would make evacuation in the event of an accident at the destruction facility difficult, if not impossible.

Locals are also discouraged that the federal project has not opened more employment opportunities for them. Walker and de Guzman say that "many of the more lucrative jobs have gone to outside experts and contractors," as is the case at the Shchuch'ye facility now under construction. Residents are hopeful that once lewisite destruction is complete, perhaps in late 2009, the facility might be converted "to profitable civilian use" to "revive the sagging local economy," Walker and de Guzman say.

Kambarka's residents have an abiding distrust of government authorities, a legacy of the Soviet-era culture of secrecy. They didn't learn of the lewisite stockpile in their backyard until 1989, when public outcry erupted over then-Soviet plans to build a secret, central weapons disposal facility at Chapayevsk, Walker says.

The lessons of 1989 have not fully been learned. Communication between authorities and citizens, though improving, generally remains poor, especially regarding information about lewisite destruction technology and treatment of the toxic by-products. Many of the citizens' questions remain unanswered.

About technology, "the Russians argue that caustic neutralization totally destroys the lewisite as a warfare agent but leaves some of the constituent chemicals, such as arsenic, in the reaction mass," Walker explains. From a verification perspective, "no one thinks the arsenic-laden reaction mass is a problem," Walker says. "It's very unlikely that the stored liquid would be back-engineered into lewisite, and its toxicity is sufficiently low that it couldn't be used as a terrorist target or as a chemical weapon by terrorists," he says.

In short, the reaction mass "is acceptable under the treaty because it is not useful for chemical weapons purposes," says a knowledgeable U.S. official who is not allowed to speak publicly for his agency. "Reconstitution would require efforts exceeding those necessary to produce the original warfare agent from new raw materials," explains OPCW spokesman Peter Kaiser.

Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
One of four hangars in Kambarka built over railroad tank cars that store the blistering agent lewisite awaiting destruction.
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
One of four hangars in Kambarka built over railroad tank cars that store the blistering agent lewisite awaiting destruction.

Treaty language mandates that OPCW direct its efforts to verifying that a chemical agent has been destroyed, not to the public health or environmental consequences of long-term storage of by-products. "No verification is required under the treaty" once OPCW has verified that the chemical agent has been destroyed, Kaiser says. "Whatever is left over is toxic, certainly, and has to be dealt with according to the nation's environmental regulations," he says. Still, he stresses, "the treaty does say nations should place the highest priority on the protection of the environment and the safety of people."

Kambarka citizens are concerned about "the enormous volumes of the toxic liquid by-product being produced because no one knows when or if it will ever be processed," Walker says. Russian officials have said the by-product, or reaction mass, will be transferred to the closed city of Gorny for further treatment. But, Walker says, officials "haven't released any details about when and how" it will be transferred.

"I can see the reaction mass remaining at Kambarka for 10 years or more until the Russians finish processing all their chemical weapons," Walker says. Destroying the total stockpile "will take the Russians at least 10 years. They are not going to make the 2012 deadline," he says.

Global Green's Russian counterpart, Green Cross Russia, has set up a public outreach and information office in Kambarka to improve communication between authorities and citizens and to keep vital information flowing. Walker thinks "there's been progress made" and points to "the major press conference and blue-ribbon cutting ceremony" held on March 1. But, he notes, there is yet no agreement by officials to release monitoring data in a timely manner "so that everyone can judge the safety of the project as it moves forward."

Along with providing information, the Kambarka office also conducts emergency training and dispenses gas masks to residents. A similar office has been established in Mirny, in Kirov Oblast, about 550 miles northeast of Moscow, where a destruction facility is under construction at the nearby Maradykovsky weapons storage facility.


Maradykovsky is slated to open this summer, but Walker notes, "Kambarka opened four months late." Maradykovsky will have two processing lines: one for nerve agents, another for blister agents. Destruction of the nearly 7,000-ton stockpile of lewisite, mustard agent, and the nerve agents soman, sarin, and VX is to be completed by 2012.

The Russians say they will begin with their version of VX—O-isobutyl S-(2-diethylaminoethyl)methyl phosphonothiolate—in bombs, using the bombs themselves as reactors. The plan is for neutralization to take place where the bombs are now stored, although some reports have the bombs being moved to a nearby destruction facility within the storage complex. Wherever neutralization occurs, the bombs will be opened, some VX will be drained to leave sufficient headspace for subsequent reaction, water containing the neutralizing agent RD-4 will be introduced, and the bombs will be resealed and allowed to "cook" for three months. RD-4 is a proprietary agent consisting of potassium isobutylate dissolved in isobutyl alcohol and N-methylpyrrolidinone.

There will be no agitation of the bombs, yet the Russians say neutralization is complete and safe, and apparently OPCW agrees. "In testing, the process worked effectively," Kaiser says.

The knowledgeable U.S. official says this labor-intensive "Rube Goldberg approach requires a lot of handling by workers, and I don't understand how there is sufficient mixing. In place of agitation, I think the idea is to turn the munitions from time to time, like turning champagne bottles in their racks." And, the official cautions, "every time you handle a munition, it increases the opportunity for accidents."

Kaiser, from information gathered from OPCW's Technical Secretariat, says, "Agitation is of lesser importance in low-temperature homogenous chemical processes." He further says that "the buildup of pressure and temperature" that occurs when sodium hydroxide is used to neutralize VX will not occur because water is being substituted, thereby "reducing process temperatures significantly."

Russian chemist and activist Lev A. Fedorov, president of the Russian Union for Chemical Safety, has publicly disagreed. He tells C&EN that the neutralization process is a "hazardous activity" and "explosion" is a real possibility because the internal pressure rises as neutralization proceeds within the resealed bomb.

He is especially concerned that the Russians are draining too little VX from the bombs and then adding too much water, thus not leaving enough headspace for gaseous expansion. Kaiser, however, says, "No gaseous by-products result from the reaction; thus no additional pressure increase is to be expected."

The reaction mass resulting from VX neutralization contains treaty-listed chemicals containing phosphorus-carbon bonds. These bonds have to be broken with further treatment before OPCW considers destruction of the nerve agent complete. Kaiser says the Russians "plan to destroy the generated reaction mass on-site in a high-temperature process," which the U.S. assumes means incineration. Like the initial neutralization, OPCW will verify second-stage processing.

"A lot of questions about this new process remain open, and the Russians are simply saying, 'Trust us; it will be fine,' " Walker says.

For example, just how many bombs were trial-tested is unclear. Kaiser will say only "that a limited number of items" were involved and "OPCW verified destruction of that limited number." The U.S. official guesses "a few dozen."

Fedorov brings additional information: He tells C&EN that VX was neutralized "in three spray tanks in 2001 and in 15 spray tanks and one bomb between September and December 2002."

In Reserve
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Holding tanks for the neutralizing agent sodium hydroxide are located in Kambarka.
Credit: Green Cross Russia Photos
Holding tanks for the neutralizing agent sodium hydroxide are located in Kambarka.

Whatever their number, the trial tests were much fewer in number and of shorter duration than pilot testing in the U.S. Most operating U.S. destruction facilities underwent at least an 18-month pilot-testing period in which unexpected glitches occurred. They still occur during full-scale operations. An official within the State Department's Verification, Compliance & Implementation Bureau, who can't speak publicly for the department, expects the Russians to encounter unforeseen events because they are going almost directly to full-scale operations.

Technical problems are just one issue in a complex equation forecasting just how close Russia comes to meeting the 2012 deadline. Other factors are the timely availability of domestic and foreign funds for destruction; effective coordination with international donors; productive collaboration among federal, regional, and local officials; and, not least, support and cooperation of local communities near stockpile and destruction sites.

Both Russia and the U.S. "will be declared as noncompliant" if they are unable to destroy their arsenals by 2012, says a Defense Department official who is familiar with OPCW but is not allowed to speak for the department. Both countries ratified the treaty and adopted domestic implementing legislation, so being noncompliant will result "in some damage to the concept of arms control," the official adds. At this point, the official says, the best both countries can do is demonstrate that they are making good-faith efforts to comply.

The consequences of noncompliance "have not yet been addressed by the states parties to the treaty," Kaiser says. Neither country, however, would automatically lose voting privileges within OPCW's Executive Council or the Conference of States Parties or be subject to any additional inspections.

In his Senate testimony last year, Mahley warned that a U.S. attempt to amend the treaty to extend the deadline would undermine the incentive for Russia to continue to make weapons destruction a priority in its national planning. And, he said, "in opening the treaty to amendment, we run the real risk of other countries adding their own favorite subjects to the amendment effort." There is, he said, "a real desire on the part of a number of countries to convert the document from being an arms control and security agreement to being a technology-transfer and chemical industry assistance agreement."

Kaiser suspects that the more Russia and the U.S. work to draw down their arsenals, the more evident it will become to other countries that both are making a conscientious effort and that both are "investing enormous sums of money in collective security."


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.