Syria's Chemicals May Have To Be Moved To Be Destroyed

Hear Geoff Brumfiel on 'Weekend Edition'

Transporting the chemical weapons stocks out of the country would be difficult. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Geoff Brumfiel about how the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will achieve its ambitious targets.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Syria met an important deadline today. The government submitted plans for the destruction of its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said that it hopes Syria's entire chemical arsenal can be destroyed by the middle of next year. But that may be an ambitious target. Joining us to discuss all of this is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much for being with us, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, can you quantify the scale of Syria's arsenal? How many chemical weapons are we talking about?

BRUMFIEL: What we do know publicly is that Syria has about a thousand tons of chemical weapon-related material, and we think most of that isn't chemical weapons; it's chemicals to make chemical weapons. The good news about these precursor chemicals is that they're a lot less dangerous than chemical weapons themselves. For example, the nerve gas sarin is made up of two chemicals, and one of them is actually a kind of alcohol that's used in all sorts of industrial processes. That alcohol could be pretty easy to dispose of, and one expert I spoke to thought it could even be sold to another chemical company to help pay for the disposal of the other stuff. Now, the other part of sarin is a lot nastier, and there's a way to get rid of it. One of them is hydrolysis. Basically, it involves mixing the chemical with a lot of hot water and other chemicals and break it down and then you can incinerate those byproducts. It's a similar story for mustard gas and DX nerve gas, the two other agents that Syria is thought to have.

MARTIN: So, that process you just described, is that something that can take place inside of Syria?

BRUMFIEL: Well, incineration and hydrolysis aren't all that complicated but you do need a lot of infrastructure. So, to burn these chemicals, you need an incinerator with protections in place to keep them from leaking out into the environment. Hydrolysis requires a lot of electricity and water. But Syria is a war zone, so, obviously, you can't go taking the time to build these big, complicated operations.

MARTIN: How is it actually going to happen then?

BRUMFIEL: The game plan at the moment is to try and move these precursor chemicals to the coast and get it onto a ship and take it somewhere else. Now, that job will probably fall on the Syrian army. But even once you get the stuff out of Syria, the bigger problem is where to take it. You need to find some third-party country that's willing to take these chemicals and dispose of them. Just last week, we saw Norway as a potential candidate back out because essentially they were worried they didn't have the infrastructure and also that environmental regulations could be a problem there. And so the U.S. and Russia have a big job ahead trying to find a third-party country willing to take on these chemical weapons.

MARTIN: Are there chemical weapons that are already loaded into Syrian bombs and rockets? If so, how do you dispose of those? How do you even find those?

BRUMFIEL: Finding the, hopefully, won't be a problem because the Syrians are supposed to disclose all of their chemical stocks, and that includes munitions that are loaded. In terms of disposal, though, this is a real issue. Loaded munitions are fragile. They cannot be moved very easily and they probably can't be taken out of Syria. So, anything that's already been loaded is going to have to be disposed of in the country. And that's going to be probably the most dangerous and difficult part of this entire process.

MARTIN: The target set by the international community is to have all of these weapons destroyed by the middle of next year - 2014. Is that realistic at this point?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's tough to say. I've been speaking to experts who dispose of chemical weapons for a living all week, and a lot of them think, no, it really isn't realistic. If you look at just one case, say, Libya. In 2004, they disclosed their chemical weapons stocks; kind of similar in size to Syria. And they still haven't managed to dispose of all of them yet. On the other hand, things seem to be going pretty well. On November 1st, there's a deadline to dispose of the equipment used for mixing and loading chemical weapons. And the OPCW thinks it's on track to meet that. So, there is a lot of hope at this stage, but there's a big task ahead.

MARTIN: NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

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