Getting chemical weapons destruction back on track

By Jonathan B. Tucker, Paul F. Walker | April 27, 2009

One of the many arms-control challenges facing the Obama administration is to revitalize the sagging effort to destroy the vast U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons left over from the Cold War. A new U.S. Army report, to be released in May along with the Pentagon’s 2010 budget request, will likely conclude that without additional funding, the elimination of these obsolete and dangerous weapons could drag on for another 15 years.

U.S. efforts to dispose of its chemical weapons stockpile have been under way for more than two decades, yet as of April 2009 some 12,600 tons (40 percent) of the original 31,500 tons of blister and nerve agents remain to be destroyed and the program continues to lag far behind schedule. President Obama and Congress should act promptly to reverse the additional delays proposed by the Defense Department, which are undermining the credibility of U.S. support for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and other international arms control agreements. Slowing the destruction process further would also increase the risks to nearby communities from leaking chemical weapons and possible terrorist attacks on the stockpile.

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Army, facing political opposition to transporting chemical munitions across state lines, decided to build dedicated destruction facilities at each of the eight chemical weapons storage depots scattered across the continental United States, plus one on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. At present, the Army depots in Maryland, Indiana, and Johnston Island have destroyed their stockpiles, while those in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon, and Utah are still operating. Construction of the last two destruction facilities is just getting under way at Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Pueblo holds 2,611 tons of mustard gas in mortar and artillery shells, while Blue Grass houses 523 tons of mustard agent in artillery shells, and sarin and VX nerve gas in projectiles and M55 rockets. Both depots plan to use a two-step destruction process involving chemical neutralization of the toxic agents, followed by treatment of the liquid wastes.

In 2006, the Army admitted that because of persistent technical problems and funding shortfalls, it would not finish destroying the entire U.S. chemical weapons stockpile by April 29, 2012, as required by the CWC. Washington’s expected failure to meet the treaty deadline has elicited strong international criticism from several countries, including Iran. (Russia, which inherited a vast stockpile of chemical weapons from the Soviet Union, is also unlikely to complete its destruction process on schedule.) Congress subsequently passed legislation setting a new deadline of December 31, 2017 for completing destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. But the high costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the Pentagon to divert resources away from chemical demilitarization, further slowing its pace. The Army now expects that Pueblo will not finish destroying its chemical weapons until 2020 and that Blue Grass will not complete the task until at least 2023.

To get the U.S. destruction program back on track, the Army should abandon the option, reportedly under consideration, of shipping some or all of the chemical munitions stored at Pueblo and Blue Grass to existing destruction facilities at depots in other states. Current federal legislation bans such transfers, and attempting to change the law would spark a political firestorm.

Second, Pueblo and Blue Grass should treat on-site the wastes resulting from the chemical neutralization of agents, rather than transporting the wastes across state lines for processing at military or commercial facilities, as the Army has proposed. Not only is it hard to predict which waste-treatment plants will be operating in 2015–and hence the route the shipments would have to take–but the cost of commercial treatment could be prohibitive. Moreover, if the Army fails to obtain state permits to ship the wastes off-site, the treatment effort would be further delayed.

Third, the Pentagon should allocate additional money to accelerate the construction of the neutralization and waste-treatment plants at Pueblo and Blue Grass and to ensure their round-the-clock operation, thereby getting as close to the December 2017 deadline as possible. This option might require using a contained explosive technology to destroy the mustard-filled shells in the Kentucky stockpile, along with increased staffing levels at both sites for construction, systemization, and 24/7 destruction operations. According to unpublished Army estimates, accelerating destruction at Pueblo and Blue Grass would increase upfront expenditures by upwards of $200 million annually between 2010 and 2015, but it could save approximately $800 million in out-year costs.

Finally, the United States should be more prompt in paying its $20 million annual dues to the CWC’s international implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Although U.S. funding covers only about 20 percent of the OPCW budget, Washington was 10 months late in paying its 2007 and 2008 dues, impairing the organization’s effectiveness, and it has yet to pay any of its 2009 assessment.

By hastening the safe, transparent, and environmentally sound elimination of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, the Obama administration can underscore the U.S. commitment to multilateral arms control and homeland security, and help to restore its international reputation.

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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