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.
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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.