Sea-based destruction of Syria’s CW proposed

A few days ago the press revealed that the United States has offered to neutralise some of Syria’s most dangerous chemicals aboard the Maritime Administration vessel MV Cape Ray. In the margins of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) currently underway in The Hague, more details about the proposed neutralisation process have become available. At the time of writing, it appears that the US proposal is the only viable chemical weapon (CW) disposal method on the table.

Although a decision on method of destruction for Priority 1 chemicals is not expected before 17 December (there are some rumours of a possible delay), the United States has already begun reconfiguring the Cape Ray in order to meet the tight deadlines in the decision of 15 November by the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Immediately after that decision, the facility agreement required under the CWC can be finalised and signed.

The chemicals in question are one warfare agent—some 20 metric tonnes of sulphur mustard agent—and several precursors to nerve agents, notably methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF), O-Ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid (EMPTA), N (2-chloroethyl)-N-isopropyl propan 2 amine (solution 23-64%), and N (2-chloroethyl)-N-isopropyl propan 2 amine (salt). Hydrolysis will be applied to break up the mustard agent; the nerve agent precursors will undergo chemical neutralisation.

The United States will deploy its mobile neutralisation installation, the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS). While the configuration is new, the titanium reactor vessel was a spare in storage for the elimination of US mustard agent. The FDHS has now been tested with simulants. The elimination of the US CW stockpile has given its operators extensive experience with the neutralisation process. While originally designed for operation on land, it has now been adapted for use on a ship. Even though there was a lengthy process to find a country willing to host the destruction of Syrian CW (eventually ending in the PR debacle when Albania refused three weeks ago), it is interesting to note that already in September US officials were inquiring about the possible deployment of the FDHS aboard a vessel.

Setup of the ship

The ultimate goal is to build a fully self-contained neutralisation system on the ship, which comprises storage of the reactants, the Syrian chemical agents and the effluents resulting from the neutralisation process, as well as the FDHS. When fully reconfigured, the Cape Ray will feature four decks and a lower storage area:

  • The spar deck will hold 32 reagent containers and has a helicopter pad.
  • The upper deck will initially hold 188 reagent containers (a number of which will be filled with fresh water for the neutralisation of the mustard agent). When empty, they will be repurposed to receive effluents.
  • The main trailer deck will house two FDHS set up side by side and offer storage space for the 127 containers with the mustard agent and nerve agent precursors.
  • The lower trailer deck will hold 104 containers of 6.600 gallons each for storage of effluents.
  • The tank top will hold another 78 containers of 6.600 gallons each for storage of effluents.

The main area of operations will be the trailer deck. It will be configured in such a way that no agent or effluent, whether gaseous or liquid, can escape the ship and contaminate the air or sea. This environmental enclosure enables the isolation of the deck from the rest of the vessel.

Effluents will be stored under controlled conditions until transfer on land. In particular, the PH levels will be adjusted so that they can be held in the tanks for months or even years (as experience at the Newport CW facility in the USA has demonstrated). The effluents will essentially be low hazardous waste, which can be incinerated at any commercial facility in Europe or the United States without the need for special permits or reconfiguration of installations. Together with environmental concerns, the desire to enable commercial incineration is one of the main reasons why fresh water will be used to hydrolyse the mustard agent. Sea water contains solids and the salts would affect the systems for filtering the fumes from the incineration.

The Cape Ray will carry a crew complement of 23. The specialists responsible for the neutralisation activities number 36, who will be working in teams of four.

Much of the work will be monitored via a video link to the command centre on the upper deck. An onboard laboratory will provide the analytical reports on the neutralisation process.

Safety and security

While the FDHS represents a novel configuration, the neutralisation system is based on proven technologies and processes. Aboard the Cape Ray, it will be powered by the ship’s power sources. The elimination of independent generators removes a potential hazard source. At the same time, no propellants or explosives, which typically pose some of the greatest safety hazards in CW elimination, will be on the ship. People involved in the project development stress that only chemical liquids and solids will be processed. They also note that in the entire US CW destruction process nobody has ever been killed as a consequence of exposure to toxicants, and they plan to apply the same stringent safety standards for the sea-based elimination operations.

The environmental enclosure on the main trailer deck ensures that no effluents will escape. Nothing will be discharged into the sea or the air. Filtration systems that can even cope with an accidental release of agent or effluent will be in place. This same deck is the only place on the ship where items will be moved, mostly to feed the precursor chemicals and mustard agent to the FDHS. All reactants and effluents will flow through an elaborate system of pipes.

Escorting US naval ships will protect the Cape Ray from external threats and offer urgent evacuation options in case of an accident resulting in casualties. People can also be evacuated via helicopter.

Proposed schedule

If the US receives the green light by 27 December at the latest, then the Cape Ray can set sail from Norfolk, Virginia by 4 January 2014. The locations where the chemicals will be transferred from a (presumably) Danish roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) cargo ship onto the Cape Ray and actual neutralisation operations will take place are presently unknown. All Syrian chemicals will be loaded onto the Cape Ray in a single shipment. The US schedule of operations allows for a 10-day sea voyage.

A land-based neutralisation of the proposed volume of chemicals would require approximately 30 days. Given the special circumstances of working at sea, the planners foresee 45–60 days to complete the operation at sea. This leaves them with a safety margin of some 16 days to comply with the OPCW-set deadline of 31 March. This buffer, however, is likely to be one or two days shorter if time for the transshipment from the Danish ro-ro and travel to the high sea if no state allows the neutralisation to take place in its territorial waters.

Barring some catastrophic incident, weather conditions may be the single most important factor affecting progress. The sea state, which is the locally observed motion of the waves, comprises nine categories going from 0 (glassy, no waves) to 9 (phenomenal, waves of over 14 metres). Neutralisation operations aboard the Cape Ray can take place under sea state levels 0 and 1 (waves up to 0.1 metres) and tests are currently being run to determine whether they could continue at level 2 (up to 0.5 metres). The primary consideration here is that the operators can safely continue their activities on a rolling and pitching ship. Safe storage of the precursors, reactants and effluent is guaranteed up to sea state level 4 (waves up to 2.5 metres).

Bearing this in mind, the Cape Ray will most likely operate in an enclosed sea. As it is as good as certain that the vessel will be escorted the US Navy, the Mediterranean is a good bet, although some delegates at the CSP in The Hague have dropped the possibility of the Baltic Sea.

Final elimination of the reaction mass is not taken up in this time schedule. As noted in another blog contribution, an EC decision is still pending.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.

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