Cape Ray photo by Don S. Montgomery
The UN has confirmed that a shipment of chemical weapons has left Syria, and is on route to be destroyed by the US Navy in a first-of-its-kind mission at sea. While the United States has plenty of experience destroying chemical weapons on land, no one has ever attempted to neutralize such weapons on a seagoing vessel. The planned operation will take place in international waters on the MV Cape Ray, because no individual country has been willing to risk the dangerous materials being released on their soil.
The 540 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and VX nerve agent will be decommissioned using a hydrolysis system, neutralizing the materials with water and bleach so that the compounds are no longer usable as weapons. While the location may be a first, the system is not experimental; it is based on existing weapons neutralization technology which has simply been made mobile.
While the Pentagon classes the operation as low-risk, some scientists aren’t so sure that the operation will go as smoothly as planned. While in theory, the hydrolysis process should neutralize the chemicals safely, there may be contaminants and impurities present that keep the process from safely destroying the toxins. There’s also the question of what will happen if anything goes wrong in the middle of the ocean — or if the weapons will even make it out of Syria safely. Some weapons experts worry that rebels may try to seize the containers and drums during transportation.
Countries along the shores of the site have expressed some concerns over the safety of the operation as well, including Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. The mayor of Italian port city Cioia Tauro, where the containers would be transferred to the US vessel, told The Guardian that he planned to “pursue all legal means” available to prevent the operation.
In response to these concerns, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been quick to assure the public that the process is safe. Most of the particular chemicals used by the Syrian weapons are somewhat toxic, but must be brought together and combined before they’re particularly deadly.
The Navy is also set to dispose of about 22 tons of mustard gas, and because it does not need to mix with other chemicals to be toxic, there is a special plan in place. After hydrolysis, the effluent produced will be taken to a specialized German facility and incinerated. Most of the chemical weapons should be destroyed by March 31, and the UN plans to destroy the last of them by the end of June.
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