US Lags in Destroying Chemical Weapons

While the United States continues its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is struggling to dismantle its own.

While the United States continues its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is struggling to dismantle its own.

With the world’s second largest stockpile of chemical weapons, the American government has admitted that cost overruns and delays will force it to miss deadlines for destruction set by an international treaty.

The U.S. asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) this month for an extension of its long-standing pledge to destroy 45 per cent of its chemical weapons by 2004.

There is a “great risk” that the U.S., one of the original forces behind the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, will miss the final, 2007 deadline for getting rid of all chemical munitions, says a new report from the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office.

Experts predict that Russia, with the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpile, also will miss the 2012 deadline recently set after an OPCW extension.

Russia has failed to meet almost every deadline under the 1993 convention, which holds the promise of seeing a single class of weapons destroyed for the first time in history. Russia has about 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons; the United States, about 31,000 tonnes.

“The amounts stockpiled could kill all human life several times over,” says Peter Kaiser of the OPCW at The Hague in the Netherlands. It takes only a pinprick drop of the nerve agent VX to kill almost instantly.

Even with heightened security at sites around the world after 9/11, the most lethal chemical weapons ever produced are stored in decaying rockets, mortars, artillery shells, land mines and tanks in the U.S. and Russia.

Both of the former Cold War enemies have been burning their chemical weapons in incinerators at temperatures of about 1,500 C.

Yet the pace is slow and the work is dangerous and costly.

“It’s like building a nuclear power plant in your backyard but the risks are far greater,” says Paul Walker, one of the world’s top experts on weapons of mass destruction. The director of Global Green U.S.A., he has visited every known chemical weapons site in the American and Russian arsenals. “Destroying chemical weapons is much more difficult than people imagine,” Walker adds. “Everyone is very committed, from the Russians and Americans to the other G-8 countries (including Canada) to getting the job done. The Russians are absolutely committed to getting rid of theirs. They don’t really have the money.”

The U.S. has spent $25 billion (U.S.) so far on getting rid of its chemical weapons. The original army estimate, in 1985, was $1.8 billion to destroy the entire stockpile in four years.

The U.S. is also the world’s largest donor to Russia’s campaign to destroy weapons ranging from chemicals to spent nuclear fuel from submarines. It committed the bulk of the $20 billion in aid promised over 10 years at the G-8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta., last year.

Canada promised $1 billion over the next decade.

The danger outweighs the cost, says Walker.

“It’s a real threat,” he warns from his Washington office. “We have to get rid of these weapons as soon as possible. We don’t want them to wind up in the hands of terrorists.”

To prove the portability of chemical weapons, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, stuck three filled shells into a briefcase last year during a tour of Russian arsenals by U.S. Congress members.

Yet the bunkers back in the States pose their own hazard.

“We’re still vulnerable to a suicide attack with an aircraft,” warns Jonathan Tucker, senior researcher at the Center for Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California. “The sooner the weapons can be destroyed, the better for homeland security.”

The U.S. has destroyed about 20 per cent of its stockpile, starting with a controversial incinerator opened in 1990 and closed in 2000 at Johnston Atoll, near Hawaii.

The army’s attempt to build similar plants in eight other states has been stalled by technical problems, protests and lawsuits but an incinerator is operating in Utah. An international citizen’s coalition known as the Chemical Weapons Working Group has helped convince the military to adopt neutralization, rather than burning, at disposal sites in Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Oregon.

“I have found the weapons of mass destruction and they’re in Anniston, Ala.,” says Rev. Pamela Cheney, a United Church of Christ minister in Cleveland, who spent her childhood in the area. “I’m worried to death about my 94-year-old grandmother and all my uncles and aunts and cousins there.”

The U.S. Army began burning chemical weapons last month at Anniston, about two hours from Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga. Some of the hundreds of thousands of Anniston rockets are so old that after 50 years, their liquid chemical agents have turned to gel.

The city of 25,000 has new sirens and homeowners have “alarm” radios, plastic and duct tape in case of a leak or other disaster. Families closest to the plant got plastic air-filtration hoods for protection.

“We didn’t even know the weapons were there,” says university instructor Rufus Kinney, adding, “It has scared the hell out of people.”

Author: Kathleen Kenna

News Service: Common Dreams


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