Chemical Arms Treaty At 10 | April 30, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 18 | pp. 23-26
Issue Date: April 30, 2007

Chemical Arms Treaty At 10

A decade after entry into force, successes mount, but challenges lie ahead
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
Concrete igloos in foreground store the weapons slated for incineration at the Army's Tooele, Utah, destruction facility (background).
Credit: Army Chemical Materials Agency
Concrete igloos in foreground store the weapons slated for incineration at the Army's Tooele, Utah, destruction facility (background).
Credit: Army Chemical Materials Agency

THE FRAMERS of the Chemical Weapons Convention woefully miscalculated the time it would take for nations possessing chemical weapons to destroy their deadly arsenals. Rather than taking 10 years as they had envisioned on April 29, 1997, when the treaty entered into force, the undertaking has confronted unexpected technical, political, financial, and environmental hurdles that have caused decade-long delays.

So, instead of touting the elimination of a whole class of weapons on the treaty's 10th anniversary, the treaty's implementer, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), is facing a troubling conundrum: what to do when neither of the two major possessors, Russia and the U.S., is able to destroy its stockpile by 2012, the five-year extension allowed by the treaty.

The U.S. has, in fact, acknowledged that it won't be able to meet that deadline. And some experts expect that it will take until 2023 for the U.S. to completely destroy its arsenal of nearly 30,000 metric tons.

Russia continues to insist that it will be able to destroy its 40,000-metric-ton stockpile by 2012. But Paul Walker, director of Global Green USA's Legacy Program, has doubts, because Russia began eliminating its weapons only in 2002 and has, to date, destroyed only about 16% of its holdings. It also has yet to build four of seven planned destruction facilities.

"It seems to me that neither Russia nor the U.S. will meet the 2012 deadline," Walker told attendees at Global Green USA's legacy forum on March 29, a month before the treaty's 10th anniversary.

Around the globe, more than 50,000 metric tons of declared chemical weapons await destruction in six countries: Russia, the U.S., India, South Korea, Albania, and Libya. Other countries, especially in the Middle East, are suspected of possessing chemical arms, but they are not party to the treaty and do not have to declare them.

In Iraq, insurgents' ongoing use of chlorine bombs to attack U.S. troops and unprotected civilians is a poignant reminder both of the devastation chemical weapons can wreak and the necessity of ridding the world of them. Yet funding for their timely elimination is inadequate, even in the U.S. and Russia.

Still, the picture is not entirely grim. Addressing the legacy forum, OPCW Director-General Rogelio Pfirter painted the treaty as a powerful and successful instrument for preventing the use and spread of chemical weapons.

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U.S. will incinerate chemical weapons at nine storage sites.

THE GOOD NEWS, Pfirter said, is that 25% of the known global chemical arsenal of more than 71,000 metric tons has been eliminated in 12 operating disposal facilities around the world. Seven more destruction facilities are on the drawing board but have yet to be built.

Pfirter warned that the pace of destruction has to speed up for the global arsenal to be eliminated by the treaty's 2012 deadline. "Destruction of the stockpiles is important not just for the country involved, but is important for the overall credibility of the convention," he said.

Of the six possessor states, only Russia and the U.S. are likely not to meet that deadline. The treaty is silent on the matter of noncompliance, and Pfirter is reluctant to speculate on the consequences for the treaty should both countries fail to comply.

"We have a final deadline," he declared, which is "a sort of sacrosanct commitment for all possessor states." From OPCW's perspective, he said, "it is crucial that the deadline be met and that, therefore, no effort be spared for the accomplishment of the cause of the convention."

Despite many hurdles, the treaty has demonstrated that "through multilateral efforts, enhancement of peace and security is possible," Pfirter said. The treaty, he noted, receives broad support from the chemical industry, which OPCW inspectors monitor closely.

And this support is underscored by Mike Walls, American Chemistry Council's managing director of regulatory and technical affairs, who tells C&EN, "As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the treaty, ACC remains committed to the goal of banning chemical weapons."

Russia's seven disposal facilities are all within 1,200 miles of Moscow
Credit: NOTE: All locations are approximate. The number in parentheses is the percentage of the original total Russian chemical stocks in each facility. SOURCE: Global Green USA
Russia's seven disposal facilities are all within 1,200 miles of Moscow
Credit: NOTE: All locations are approximate. The number in parentheses is the percentage of the original total Russian chemical stocks in each facility. SOURCE: Global Green USA

TO ACHIEVE maximum effectiveness and to counter global terrorism, Pfirter stressed that universal adherence to the treaty is necessary. Today, 182 nations have signed and ratified the accord, but 13 nations remain outside its purview.

At a press conference on March 30, Walker announced a new Global Green USA project to promote global adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention with a special focus on the Middle East and the Pacific Rim.

At the legacy forum the previous day, Pfirter stressed that "OPCW is not an antiterrorist organization," yet it can contribute to global antiterrorism. The more nations joining the treaty, the fewer safe havens terrorists have, he noted. Also, he stressed the obvious: Destroying chemical arsenals reduces potential terrorist targets and the diversion of these weapons to terrorists' hands.

Together, Russia and the U.S. possess more than 95% of the world's declared chemical arms, and eliminating these arsenals would go a long way toward lessening the terrorist threat. But only Albania, with 16 metric tons, will be close to meeting the treaty's original timetable of April 29, 2007, for 100% destruction of its weapons.

Albania's stocks consist of the two blister agents, sulfur mustard and lewisite, stored in barrels. This unsecured stash was discovered in November 2002 a few miles outside the capital city of Tirana by officials looking for weapons caches, Aleksander Sallabanda, Albania's ambassador to the U.S., told the legacy forum.

The cache was undocumented, Sallabanda said, and the source of the agents is unknown, "but we can make some guesses." Some of the barrels bear Chinese labels, and Sallabanda speculated that Albania's former communist regime might have imported the agents from China in the 1980s during a period "when nothing was documented."

The U.S., through its Cooperative Threat Reduction (or Nunn-Lugar) Program, is helping Albania incinerate its stockpile. Albania has received about $20 million in Nunn-Lugar funding, and other countries, including Greece, Italy, and Switzerland, as well as other European Union members, are also contributing support.

Incineration began in May 2005 and was expected to last two years, but technical difficulties have caused some slippage. Sallabanda said that by Feb. 28, 66% of the stockpile had been eliminated.

Although Sallabanda declared that "Albania will destroy all its chemical weapons by the 10th anniversary of the CWC," that has not yet happened. If technical problems can be kept in abeyance, Albania should reach that goal in the next few months.

India, Libya, and South Korea were also invited to present at the legacy forum but declined. Pfirter told the forum that India—with 1,044 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent, most of it in bulk containers—had destroyed 80% of its stockpile.

Pfirter said India should be able to completely dispose of its stocks by its new deadline of 2009. But Walker tells C&EN that India might finish "sooner, depending on the opening of a second destruction facility."

South Korea, with 156,000 sarin binary artillery shells, has also destroyed 80% of its arsenal. In binary weapons, the lethal nerve agent is not formed until after the shell is fired. Pfirter said that South Korea is likely to destroy the remaining shells by December 2008.

Libya has not yet begun eliminating its nearly 24 metric tons of mustard agent and more than 1,300 metric tons of chemical precursors for making nerve agents, all stored at a remote desert site. The cost to eliminate this arsenal has been estimated at $100 million, and the U.S. has agreed to fund the project. Pfirter said Libya probably would be able to meet its new deadline of December 2010.

At the legacy forum, Vladimir I. Yermakov, a senior counselor at the Russian Embassy, estimated that it would cost "more than $7 billion" to destroy Russia's enormous arsenal. He explained that Russia allocated only $190 million per year for the program from 1999 to 2004, but in 2005, funding leaped to about $400 million. It had increased to $690 million in 2006, and is $960 million this year.

To date, the U.S., Canada, and EU countries have committed $2 billion to aid Russia's destruction effort. But Yermakov complained that Russia "has only received $436 million."

THE U.S. ALONE has committed about $1 billion in Nunn-Lugar funding for the construction of a disposal facility at Shchuch'ye (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 19) in the Kurgan region of Russia. The Global Partnership, a coalition of about 24 countries, including the Group of Eight industrialized nations, has committed another $2 billion.

Shchuch'ye is located in a poor, rural area, east of the Ural Mountains in the westernmost part of the Siberian Steppes. It stores 5,400 metric tons of the deadly nerve agent VX, about 14% of Russia's total declared stocks. The stockpile contains about 2 million portable VX-filled artillery shells that, if stolen, could be diverted to a region south of Russia known to harbor terrorist groups.

The U.S.-funded part of construction at Shchuch'ye has stopped because of contracting disputes with Russia. The two countries have reached an agreement in principle to restart the program, but nothing has yet been signed.

Still, Yermakov said, Russia expects Shchuch'ye and two other facilities, at Leonidovka and Pochep, to be built and begin operating in 2008. And a facility at Kizner is to begin operating in 2009.

The facility at Gorny, which stored 1,142 metric tons of blister agents in bulk, completed neutralization operations and was shuttered in December 2005, Yermakov said. Another facility at Kambarka, which stores nearly 3,000 metric tons of bulk blister agent, began neutralizing the agents in December 2005 and will operate through 2009.

Russia has received credit from the OPCW for complete destruction of the agents at both facilities, even though the wastewater produced from neutralization has not undergone secondary treatment. Credit was given because the wastewater contains no treaty-listed precursor chemicals and theoretically cannot be used to make new chemical agents.

A facility at Maradykovski stores 40,000 agent-filled bombs. About 14,000 have undergone first-stage neutralization since the facility began operating in August 2006.

To meet its December 2007 deadline for destroying 20% of its total arsenal, Russia needs to receive credit for the destruction operations at Maradykovski. This presents a sticky problem for the OPCW, because the wastewater produced contains a high percentage of treaty-listed precursor chemicals.

Pfirter implied that Russia is likely to receive credit for full destruction of the Maradykovski stocks if Russia can assure the OPCW that secondary treatment, perhaps incineration, is imminent and that the bombs' metal parts are "irrevocably destroyed."

The U.S., which treats the wastewater from first-stage neutralization, is likely to object, as will other countries.

BY COUNTING first-stage neutralization as complete destruction, Russia, at the end of March, claimed to have destroyed 17.5% of its total stockpile. That leaves more than 80% for Russia to destroy in the next five years. "It's a daunting task," Pfirter said.

The U.S. also faces a difficult, though not so daunting, road ahead. As of April 17, the latest data available, the U.S. has destroyed 13,964 short tons, or 44% of its total stockpile. Another 618 tons of VX nerve agent stored in Newport, Ind., have undergone first-stage neutralization.

The U.S. receives no credit for the Newport tonnage until the wastewater from neutralization undergoes additional treatment. That is now occurring, though it may be temporary.

Just recently, the Army signed a $49 million contract with Veolia Environmental Services, a hazardous waste treatment facility based in Port Arthur, Texas. On April 16, the Army began trucking containers of the caustic wastewater, called hydrolysate, across eight states (C&EN, April 16, page 10). At press time, some 50,000 gal of the hydrolysate had reached Texas. Veolia began incinerating the hydrolysate on April 20.

Craig E. Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, and several environmental groups are suing the Army to stop the transport of the wastewater.

Even without the Newport credit, the U.S. is expected to meet its deadline for destroying 45% of its arsenal by Dec. 31.

At the legacy forum, Dale A. Ormond, acting director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency (CMA), presented "a good news story" about the U.S.'s disposal efforts, which to date "has cost about $14 billion, maybe a little less." According to Ormond, "The U.S. has met all CWC milestones and will meet the 45% deadline on Dec. 31." But he also admitted that the U.S. will be "challenged in meeting the 2012 deadline."

He ticked off a number of accomplishments, including this: "All chemical weapons production facilities have been destroyed and are now green fields." And all precursor chemicals for making binary weapons have been destroyed.

Ormond also noted that two of the eventual nine disposal facilities—on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and at Aberdeen, Md.—have destroyed 100% of their stockpiles and are now closed. And three of five operating facilities—at Tooele, Utah; Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Umatilla, Ore.—have destroyed more than 50% of their stockpiled munitions.

The flip side to this rosy scenario is that two facilities, at Pueblo, Colo., and Blue Grass, Ky., have yet to be built, mainly due to funding delays. Because of public outcry, these facilities will not be incinerators but will use some form of neutralization plus secondary treatment to destroy munitions filled with mustard agent.

The shift away from incinerators came in 1996 when Congress ordered the Army to search for alternative disposal methods. In response, the Army created the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, which eventually selected the neutralization methods. ACWA is headed by William J. Pehlivanian, deputy program manager, who spoke at the legacy forum.

As Pehlivanian explained, the original 2004 designs for the two facilities proposed by ACWA were "deemed unaffordable." Only after two redesigns were the programs certified in January 2007.

During this three-year period, funding for the programs was cut, until by 2006, "we were in a caretaker status," Pehlivanian said. But, he said, funding has increased to about $51 million per year for both sites, for the fiscal years 2007 through 2009. "I have faith that we are funding what we need to execute the program fully," he said.

WITH FUNDING back on track, Pueblo and Blue Grass are slated to begin operations in 2012 or 2013. Pueblo is expected to complete destruction of its arsenal in the 2018-20 time frame, but Blue Grass is not likely to finish before 2023, fully 11 years beyond the treaty deadline.

Pehlivanian conceded that if the ACWA program "is steadied and we get more money," deadlines at Pueblo and Blue Grass could be pulled back—that is, accelerated—but not enough to meet the treaty's ultimate 2012 deadline.

Given the precedent being set at Newport, Ormond hinted that the Army, for economic and security reasons, is strongly considering shipping the hydrolysate produced at Pueblo and Blue Grass off-site for secondary treatment.

But J. Ross Vincent, senior policy adviser to the Sierra Club and member of Pueblo's Citizens' Advisory Commission, insisted that off-site shipment "is a bad idea." He said "it was safer to treat the hydrolysate on-site, and citizens are willing to have it done on-site."

Sometime within the next decade or so, the six possessor states will have eliminated their arsenals, but the work of OPCW will continue. As Pfirter said, OPCW will then assume the role of "watchdog" to ensure that new chemical weapons are not produced and spread around the globe.

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