The Bayonet

Thursday, Jan. 09, 2014

Team to destroy Syrian chemical weapons

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Some 64 specialists from the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center are expected to depart for the Mediterranean in about two weeks aboard the ship MV Cape Ray to destroy chemical weapons from Syria.

The nearly 650-foot-long ship, now in Portsmouth, will travel to a yet-to-be specified location in the Mediterranean and will take on about 700 metric tons of both mustard gas and “DF compound,” a component of the nerve agent sarin gas, and will then use two new, and recently installed “field deployable hydrolysis systems” to neutralize the chemicals.

Onboard the Cape Ray will be 35 mariners, about 64 chemical specialists from Edgewood, Md., a security team, and a contingent from U.S. European Command. It’s expected the operational portion of the mission will take about 90 days.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said preparations began before the United States even knew it was committed to the mission — or that the mission would ever materialize.

“There was a recognition that something was going to happen in Syria, in all likelihood that would require us to do something with those chemical materials that were known to be there,” he said.

In December 2012, a request was made to determine what could be done if the U.S. was asked to participate in destruction of chemical weapons from Syria.

By the end of January 2013, a team with the Joint Project Manager for Elimination and the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Edgewood, Md., had evaluated existing technology and configurations for neutralization of chemical weapons and made the recommendation to use the hydrolysis process.

Construction of a deployable system began in February, and the first prototype was available in June. A second was available in September.

“We could have waited to see what happened and then reacted to that, or we could have moved out ahead of time and then prepared for what might happen or was likely to happen,” Kendall said. “Fortunately ... we took the latter course.”

Onboard the ship, an environmentally sealed tent contains two field deployable hydrolysis systems, or FDHS, units, which will operate 24 hours a day in parallel to complete the chemical warfare agent neutralization mission.

Each unit costs about $5 million and contains built-in redundancy and a titanium-lined reactor for mixing the chemical warfare agents with the chemicals that will neutralize them. About 130 gallons of mustard gas can be neutralized at a time, over the course of about two hours, for instance, said Adam Baker, with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

The FDHS systems can, depending on the material, process between 5 to 25 metric tons of material a day. With two systems, that means as much as 50 metric tons a day of chemical warfare agents can be destroyed. The mission requires disposal of 700 metric tons of material. But the plan is not to start out on the first day at full speed.

“There is a ramp-up period,” Baker said. “It’s going to be a slow start. We’re going to go very deliberately and safely.”

Rob Malone, with the Joint Project Manager for Elimination at Edgewood, said the two chemical warfare agents will be neutralized with reagents such as bleach, water or sodium hydroxide.

“They are doing a chemical hydrolysis process. It brings the chemical agent together with a reagent, another chemical,” Malone said. “It creates a chemical reaction that basically destroys the chemical agent in and of itself.”

The result of that neutralization process will create about 1.5 million gallons of a toxic “effluent” that must be disposed of, but cannot be used as a chemical weapon.

Additionally, Malone said, the effluent is similar to other toxic hazardous compounds that industrial processes generate. There is a commercial market worldwide for disposing of such waste.

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