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Plan Calls For Syria's Chemical Arsenal To Be Destroyed At Sea

If a plan taking shape is finalized, the MV Cape Ray, managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will be turned into a floating chemical weapons disposal plant. (U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration)

The world wants Syria's chemical arsenal destroyed. But so far, no country has offered to do the dirty work on its soil. Over the past week, an alternative has gained ground: Carry out the destruction at sea. The plan taking shape is complicated and untested, but it just might work.

Ever since Syria announced its willingness to give up its chemical stockpiles in September, the international community knew it had a tough task ahead. In other countries, like Iraq and Albania, the chemicals were burned in purpose-built incinerators. But Syria is a war zone, so building a specialized chemical-weapons disposal plant isn't an option.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried to find another country that might be willing to take on the worst of Syria's chemical stocks. But after a few months of asking around, it found that nobody wants 500 metric tons of the nastiest chemical weapons ingredients.

"Every country said no," says Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, an environmental group that tracks the effects of weapons disposal. "The final alternative is to do it on a ship somewhere on the high seas."

The United States has now offered a ship named the MV Cape Ray. It's basically an oversized car ferry that the U.S. Department of Transportation had available for naval operations. Now it's in Portsmouth, Va., being turned into a floating disposal plant for chemical weapons.

You don't want to have really high waves or swells that can rock and roll the boat. Because this stuff is wet chemistry. ... You don't want it splashing around.
Paul Walker, Green Cross International

"They're replumbing it," Walker says. "They have enough plumbers there, I think, probably right now to plumb a city."

While the U.S. gets the Cape Ray ready, the United Nations and the OPCW are trying to figure out how to get the chemicals out of Syria and to the ship. First the Syrian Army must transport them through a war zone to the port of Latakia. Speaking on Wednesday, Sigrid Kaag, who is leading the joint effort, said the security situation was so fragile, she had to fly to the port: "I had to travel to Latakia via Lebanon using a helicopter."

But Kaag says the only route for the chemicals will be over land. "This is a viable best-assessed option, and we just need to make sure that it can happen," she says.

When they get to the port, the Cape Ray won't be there to meet them. A U.S. vessel in a Syrian port could become a target. So instead the plan calls for the chemicals to be loaded onto another boat. On Friday, the Danish government announced that, together with Norway, it would offer transport ships and frigates to pick up the chemicals. The plan is for the ships to take them to another port, yet to be identified, where the weapons components will finally be transferred to the Cape Ray.

Only then can the destruction of the chemicals begin.

The U.S. military will have installed two brand-new mobile chemical weapons disposal units, known as Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. Picture giant vats — the sort you might see at a brewery. They use hot water and other chemicals to break down the toxic weapons components. Or at least that's the theory.

"The system itself has never been tested in full capacity or full throughput mode," says Green Cross International's Walker.

And there's plenty that could go wrong. These units have a lot of plumbing. Pipes could clog with salts produced by the destruction process. The chemicals themselves are highly caustic and could cause valves to corrode. The chemicals from Syria aren't the actual nerve agents — they're so-called precursors. But they're still toxic, and if some leaked, they would be a mess to clean up.

And, don't forget, this is going to be happening on the open ocean. "You don't want to have really high waves or swells that can rock and roll the boat," Walker says. "Because this stuff is wet chemistry. ... You don't want it splashing around."

As it disposes of these chemicals, the ship will fill its hold with waste from the process. The waste won't be as toxic as the original stuff.

"Something like Drano, I suppose, if you wanted to clean your drains," says Walker. "This is not something you'd want to drink, but it won't kill you if you touch it or breathe it in."

It's still nasty enough that it will have to be taken somewhere else for final disposal.

The plan still must be approved by the 41 member states of OPCW's executive council. But observers are hopeful that the complex disposal mission can go forward.

"I think this can work," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. But, Kimball adds, "We're likely to see some hiccups and delays along the way."

The deadline is tight. Once the final go-ahead is given, the goal is to get it done by June 30.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are covering other stories today, including Syria and the question of how to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons. So far, no country has offered to do the dirty work on its soil and now, in just the past week a plan to do the job at sea has taken shape. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the operation is complicated and untested, but it just might work.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Plan A for disposing of Syria's chemical weapons stocks was to ship them to another country and do it there. Paul Walker is with Green Cross International, an environmental group. When I first spoke to him in October, he thought it was the way forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL WALKER: We definitely need an agreement with the country. We can't put it on a ship and just have it wander the Mediterranean for the indefinite future.

BRUMFIEL: Well, after a few months of asking around, turns out nobody wants 500 metric tons of chemical weapons ingredients. So when I called Paul Walker back, he said it was time for Plan B, a ship in the Mediterranean.

WALKER: Every country said no. So the final - really, the final - alternative is to really do it somewhere else, which means on board a ship somewhere on the high seas.

BRUMFIEL: The ship's name is the MV Cape Ray. It's basically an oversized car ferry that the U.S. Department of Transportation has available. Now, it's being turned into a floating chemical weapons disposal plant.

WALKER: They're replumbing it. You know, you have enough plumbers here, I think, to probably, right now, to plumb a city.

BRUMFIEL: While the U.S. gets the Cape Ray ready, the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are trying to figure out how to get the chemicals out of Syria, and to the ship. First, the Syrian Army must transport them through a war zone to the port of Latakia. Sigrid Kaag, who is leading the U.N. effort, said that the security situation was so fragile, it wasn't safe to drive to the port.

SIGRID KAAG: I had to travel first to Latakia via Lebanon, using a helicopter.

BRUMFIEL: Despite the danger, Kaag says that the only way out for the chemicals is over land.

KAAG: This is a viable, best-assessed option, and we just need to make sure that it can happen.

BRUMFIEL: But the ship won't be there to meet them. A U.S. vessel in the Syrian port could become a target. So instead, the plan calls for the chemicals to be loaded onto another boat, a Danish transport taken to another port yet to be identified and finally, transferred to the Cape Ray. Only then can the destruction of the chemicals begin.

The U.S. military will have installed two, brand-new mobile disposal units. Picture giant vats you might see at a brewery. Paul Walker says they use hot water and other chemicals to break down the toxic weapons components - or at least, that's the theory.

WALKER: The system itself has never been tested in full capacity or full throughput mode.

BRUMFIEL: And there's plenty that could go wrong. Pipes could clog with salts; valves could corrode. The chemicals from Syria aren't nerve agents, they're the components. But they're still toxic. If something leaked, it would be a mess to clean up. And don't forget, this would happen on the open ocean.

WALKER: You don't want to have really high waves or swells that can rock and roll the boat because this stuff is wet chemistry, as I say, and you don't want it splashing around.

BRUMFIEL: Eventually, the ship will fill its hold with waste from the process. It's not as toxic as the original stuff.

WALKER: Something like Drano, I suppose. This is not something you'd want to drink, but it won't kill you if you touch it or breathe it in.

BRUMFIEL: It's still nasty enough that it will have to be taken somewhere else for final disposal. When that happens, it's done. The deadline is tight. Once the final go-ahead is given, the goal is to wrap up most of the work by next summer. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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