Less than 90 days: how US will destroy Syria chemical weapons

A ship, two portable treatment plants and less than 90 days: that's the plan the Pentagon unveiled Thursday to destroy "hundreds of tons" of Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons.

After Albania refused to destroy the lethal "priority 1" chemical agents -- including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas -- on its soil, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) turned to the United States.

Under an international agreement brokered to avoid US military strikes on the Damascus regime, Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons have to be out of the country by a December 31 deadline.

The US proposal aims to take the process off land altogether and into international waters.

The Pentagon has already begun loading the necessary equipment on to the MV Cape Ray, a 650-foot (200-meter) cargo ship, part of a reserve fleet, at its Norfolk, Virginia naval base, although it has yet to receive formal orders to carry out the job.

The "priority 1" chemical agents, which must be destroyed by April 2014, are on the order of "hundreds of tons" -- or around "150 shipping containers" -- according to a senior US defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It's a subset of the total 1,290 tons of chemical weapons, ingredients and precursors Damascus has declared as part of the international agreement.

The OPCW says the Syrian army will bring containers to the Latakia port, where they will be loaded on to a third country's ship.

It remains to be determined which country that will be, but Norway and Denmark have agreed to furnish all or some of these ships.

Once at the next port, the containers will be transferred over the course of 48 hours to the Cape Ray, which would likely conduct its neutralization operations in international waters, according to the Pentagon official.

The US Defense Department is installing two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems -- portable treatment plants capable of "neutralizing" the most dangerous Syrian chemical agents.

'Between 45 and 90 days'

These portable units, developed by the Pentagon earlier this year, are installed inside an enclosure tent that has special filtration systems aimed at minimizing any risk of a leak.

They will be operated by about 60 civilian defense employees, part of a crew of around 100 people on board the ship.

Hydrolysis involves breaking down a lethal chemical agent with hot water and bleach. The end result, the Pentagon official explained, is "a very low-level hazardous waste that is very common in industry and it's transported every day on high seas."

"Chemicals are 99.9 percent destroyed," he said, in a process that would take "between 45 and 90 days."

"This is a proven technology. The chemicals and their reaction are very well understood; it's safe, environmentally sound," the official said, emphasizing that "absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea."

"The DoD has decades of experience in the chemical demilitarization business," he said. The United States is in the process of destroying its own arsenal built up during the Cold War and has helped Russia, Albania and Libya get rid of their weapons as well.

Once the ship is fully equipped, it will do some sea trials and be "prepared to sail early next year," the official said.

The Pentagon, which said this was a "low-risk" operation, hasn't given details on security measures that would likely be installed around the Cape Ray during the operation.

The inert byproduct from the hydrolysis would be brought to a commercial waste treatment facility, along with Syria's other chemical agents, for which the OPCW has launched an appeal to the private sector.

Some 35 companies have expressed interest, according to OPCW spokesman Christian Chartier.

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