Getting rid of chemical weapons: How it works

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reach an agreement  in Geneva on Sept. 14, 2013 for Syria to destroy chemical weapons. (AP Photo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reach an agreement in Geneva on Sept. 14, 2013 for Syria to destroy chemical weapons. (AP Photo)

The United States and Russia have given Syria one week to tell everything about its chemical weapons program. The Syrians will have to list what they have, how much of it, the munitions that carry it, where it all is and the facilities where they make it.

The agreement hammered out between the Americans and the Russians over the weekend puts every step on a fast track. A statement posted on the State Department website calls for "stringent special verification measures, beginning within a few days, including a mechanism to ensure the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites." Inspections will be completed by November. It sets a goal to eliminate all chemical weapons within the first half of 2014.

Here at PolitiFact, we study verification and evidence quite a bit. We wondered: What does it take to destroy chemical weapons? How much money, time, equipment and how many people are involved? And how can you be sure you’ve destroyed everything?

We interviewed experts and reviewed the research to find out.

Three main ways to destroy chemical weapons

Paul Walker at Global Green, an environmental nonprofit, has observed and advised on chemical weapon dismantling since the United States and Russia first began destroying their chemical agents in the early 1990s. Walker took part in the first on-site international inspection of Russia’s facilities in 1994. He recently posted an article titled simply, "How to destroy chemical weapons."

Incineration: This method can process chemical weapons in large amounts and typically is actually an industrial complex with several incinerators to handle different parts of the task. "They can take up acres of land," Walker said. "With scrubbers the size of a city block."

Chemical weapons arrive in armored containers that move "at walking speed, three to four miles an hour," Waker said. Workers feed artillery shells, land mines, or whatever form the weapons take, into robotic disassembly lines. The robots puncture and drain the liquid agents. That toxic soup heads to one incinerator.

The explosives in the munitions head to another incinerator and the metal parts go to a third.

"It’s very dangerous," Walker said. "Sometimes the shells explode and destroy the robots. Then a team in protective suits has to go in, clean everything up and repair the robots."

For smaller stockpiles, smaller incinerators have worked well. Brian Finlay with the Stimson Center, a defense think tank in Washington,said when Albania discovered a couple of bunkers with mustard gas agents, "the United States paid to have the incinerators built in Germany and shipped directly to the sites in the country." Finlay said that was a "great case for how it might be done in Syria."

But in Albania, they were dealing with 16 tons of material. Syria has an estimated 1,000 tons or more.

Neutralization: This process begins the same way, with robotic disassembly lines. But for some toxins, like the ones in mustard gas, careful mixing with hot water causes them to self-destruct.

"It takes a few hours or a few days," Walker said. "You keep measuring until it’s 99.9999% destroyed. Then you have something like Draino."

At that point, the liquid can either go to an incinerator or to something like a sewage treatment plant where microbes break down the final toxic components.

Nerve agents are trickier. They require sodium hydroxide, and the chemical reaction generates heat and pressure. But the process can be controlled until the compounds fully break down.

Bang boxes: This is the simplest but slowest method, in terms of the number of weapons it can process at a time.

"It’s basically a containment vessel where you can blow up the munitions and then add liquids to neutralize the toxic agents," Walker said. "It’s very portable. The thing can fit on an 18-wheeler."

That said, the bang box must be used inside a specially designed structure where the air pressure is less than the outside to keep any gases that might escape from leaking out.

"The throughput on these is very low,"Walker said. "One to three munitions per day in some cases."

Destruction in a war zone

The U.S.-Russia agreement says that to move things along quickly, some materials might be taken out of Syria and then destroyed. Walker said this could work well for what are called precursor chemicals, agents that only become lethal when mixed together. The options are much trickier for everything else.

"Live agent, either in bulk storage or weaponized, should not be shipped anywhere distant, nor across borders, due to the high risks involved," Walker said. Ideally, these would be treated on site, perhaps in bang boxes, or at least moved to a centralized facility, Walker said.

Seven countries around the world have successfully dismantled chemical weapons stocks (the United States, Russia, India, Albania, South Korea, Iraq and Libya). "What we’ve never done is destroyed them in the middle of a civil war," said James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Moving them anywhere would be " an incredibly challenging fraught process," said Finlay. "You put it on a railroad, and you put yourself in for a host of of other risks, including possible attack from militants."

Assembling the people and building the facilities

Until the world learns more about the details of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, it is impossible to know what it will take to destroy them. But no expert we spoke to expects this to be quick.

"We are looking at a prolonged process," said James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It will take years, and that will complicate the entire diplomatic process."

Walker said some very small facilities like the pre-made incinerators used in Albania could be put in place in a matter of months, but anything larger would take at least two years to get up and running.

"You are looking at five to six years easily before these weapons are fully dismantled and destroyed," Walker said. And most likely, it would be longer.

In rough terms, Walker estimated it would take 500 people to build the facilities and an equal number to operate them. Under the chemical weapons convention, no facility can operate without the presence of inspectors authorized by the international agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Inspectors are part of every step in the process. "It has to be one of the most boring jobs in the world," Walker said. "They count the munitions one by one. They count the metal bodies as they emerge."

Walker estimates the cost in Syria could be in the range of $1 billion to $2 billion.

Making it work in Syria

Walker said a security force in the thousands would be needed. A Pentagon estimate reportedly put the figure as high as 75,000.

On top of that, Finlay said Syria’s commitment would be essential.

"It is not possible without the cooperation of the Syrian government," Finlay said. "There are a million different way that you can complicate matters. You can move things around. You can deny access. You could drag this out for years."

Finlay said it is possible to put requirements for Syria into any U.N. Security Council resolution that might emerge, but then there would the question of whether there would be the political will to enforce those requirements.

Finlay also notes that the destruction of chemical weapons depends on a full declaration of where they are.

"Ten years from now," he said, "we could not be sure that somewhere in a bunker someplace in the country there aren’t artillery shells with sarin. It’s a big challenge to discover everything."