How to destroy your chemical weapons

Agreeing to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons was the hard part—and “was” is, admittedly, an optimistic word. But if Russia, the U.S. and Syria can actually agree to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal, it turns out that the process of destroying them is not as difficult as one might imagine [um, except for the slight complication of securing them during a raging civil war in Syria, replete with lots of groups who would love to get their hands on these weapons of mass destruction, and the possible harm that could be done to civilians and the environment by a military approach to chemical-weapons destruction.] But, military and political logistics aside, here’s a roundup of articles describing how to get this job done, and some new developments that are in the works:

Incineration and neutralization

The two most common ways used by the U.S. to destroy chemical weapons are incineration and neutralization. According to Wikipedia:

The primary method is incineration, where liquid agents are burned in a furnace of temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  For chemical agents in delivery vessels (i.e. mortars, bombs, artillery shells, etc.), this is a multi-step process. First the delivery vessels are robotically disassembled in a reverse order from that which they were originally assembled. Next the chemical agent is drained out of the projectile and sent to the liquid incinerator as the disassembled projectile parts are placed on a conveyor belt and fed into a metal furnace where they are melted at close to 1,500 °F for 15 minutes to ensure that any contamination has been completely destroyed. [This method has been used since 1979.]

The second method is neutralization. Basically, this method chemically neutralizes and cooks the weapons. Wikipedia says:

In the United States, neutralization was first selected as an alternative to incineration to destroy stockpiles of chemical agent stored in bulk. Depending on the type of agent to be destroyed, neutralization destroys the chemical agent by mixing it with hot water or hot water and sodium hydroxide. The U.S. Army’s Chemical Materials Agency applied this method to safely eliminate its stockpile of mustard agent in Edgewood, Md., and VX nerve agent in Newport, Ind. Both stockpiles were stored in large steel containers without explosives or other weapon components. The industrial wastewater produced by the process, known as hydrolysate, was sent to a permitted commercial hazardous waste storage, treatment and disposal facility for treatment and disposal.

Military options

If a military attack is the “preferred” method [we can hope not], there are options [no guarantees that nearby civilians wouldn’t be hurt, though].

Before we commence bombing, here’s some background: Some earlier forms of chemical weapons presented problems for disposal, because they were essentially large amounts of toxic substances packed into containers such as bombs, artillery shells and canisters. They also were prone to leaks and premature explosions, so weapons makers split them into “binary” devices, in which the two essential substances were kept separate within the weapon, until an explosive force broke down the barrier and created the chemical reaction that resulted in the poisonous substance. This “safety” feature made them harder to destroy, because bombing them would release the toxins.

But, according to

…fortunately, some common precursors, like the isopropyl alcohol used to create sarin gas, can be incinerated. If enough heat is created quickly, the military believes the production of sarin gas can be greatly reduced or even eliminated. For this purpose it has funded the creation of the BLU-119/B (aka CrashPad — with the PAD standing for Prompt Agent Defeat.) The CrashPad is a 420-pound weapon with a “blast-fragmentation” warhead designed to incinerate chemical agents and precursors before they can escape into the surrounding area. This is accomplished by using white phosphorous in the payload, resulting in a thermobaric or high-heat weapon that uses oxygen in the environment to burn.

Extremetech also describes another chemical-weapons-busting device, something incongruously called a “Passive Attack Weapon (PAW), an oxymoron if ever there was one. But I digress…

For chemical and biological agents that are heavier than air, simply ripping things apart can work. Destroying their containers — whether bomb casings, artillery shells, or storage canisters — and letting the agents settle to the ground could greatly reduce the area affected. The CBU-107 is a specially designed bomb containing up to 3,700 metal fragments — 350 14-inch rods, 1,000 7-inch rods, and 2,400 2-inch rods — that scatter throughout a 60-meter target area. If exploded in a WMD stockpile, this PAW (Passive Attack Weapon) should destroy nearby canisters, shells, and bombs, releasing their agents locally.

Extreme Tech adds, somewhat sanguinely:

The result of a PAW strike will still be a toxic mess, but hopefully one that only affects a limited area. The PAW has one other trick up its sleeve: Because the rods are propelled at very high speeds, they will heat up whatever they hit. So, much like an…anti-tank round can melt its way through tank armor, the PAW’s payload may be able to incinerate many of the chemicals located where it is detonated.

But, in the end, Extreme Tech does acknowledge the risks:

Use of any of these munitions is made much more complex if the targeted weapons are housed near populated areas, of course.

New and improved: Mobile unit for on-site, chemical weapon destruction

FDHS device developed by U.S. Army

A new approach to destroying chemical weapons is a something known as the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS). Newly created [in 2013] by the U.S. Army, the device, says Navy Times, is a mobile processing plant “designed to destroy chemical warfare agents in bulk that . It can be up and running within 10 days of arriving on site.”

A crew of 15 people is needed to operate the system at any given time, according to the Army. The system can neutralize between five and 25 metric tons of chemicals per day, depending on the material.…The system is “designed to convert chemical agents into compounds not usable as weapons. Neutralization is achieved by mixing the agent with water and other chemicals and heating it.”

If that sounds like an easy solution—one that would avoid bombing Syria—think again. To destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons cache in site would require first securing the weapons where they are stockpiled. That would be a very challenging and unpopular scenario, says the Washington Post.

In the wake of any sudden regime collapse, efforts to find and secure stockpiles would be both a high priority and a difficult challenge.

The Pentagon has estimated that it would take more than 75,000 troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and the United States has reportedly been working with NATO to prepare for several scenarios along these lines.

Oh, oops, did I say that destroying chemical weapons was going to be easy? Technically, it could be. Logistically: that’s a different story.