NBC Weapons: Sending The Cold War Up The Chimney




December 5, 2010: Russia has put into service a sixth chemical weapons destruction plant. The new plant will, in the next seven years, destroy about 19 percent of the Russia's 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. All these weapons were to have been, by treaty, destroyed by 2007, but there have been construction and technical delays.

Two years ago, the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) admitted that its 1997 deadlines for destroying the world's chemical weapons stocks were too optimistic, and has extended that 2007 deadline, by five years (to 2012.) But Russia reported that it was not able to meet even that deadline, and had to build more destruction plants, which it has done.

The OPCW treaty has 183 nations signed on. But several (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and seven others) have not. Despite this, since 1993, over a third of the world's chemical weapons have been destroyed. This includes over half of the U.S. stocks, and nearly a third of the largest stockpile in the world (Russia).

The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, which OPCW monitors, has resulted in 3,000 inspections, in 80 countries, over the last ten years. The main obstacle to destruction of chemical weapons has been technical. It's not easy safely destroying this stuff. The U.S. has provided Russia with cash and technology to help them get on with destroying their stocks. For Russia, this is somewhat urgent, as the Soviet Union was reluctant to throw away old chemical weapons. As a result, much of the Russian stuff has deteriorated with time, becoming unstable and more difficult to handle. On the plus side, dealing with the Russian stockpiles has advanced the technology for destroying decrepit chemical weapons, and produced lots of Russians with technical skills, and a willingness to travel and apply these skills, for the right price.

After World War II, even larger quantities of chemical weapons were disposed of by simply dumping them into the ocean. This was only a problem in the shallow Baltic, where 35,000 tons of German chemical weapons were dumped. These are coming up in fishing nets, and the shells and barrels are corroding and releasing the poisons. This is harmful to the fish, and any fishermen who haul it up. A dozen or so fishermen are injured by these ancient chemical weapons each year. While some 50,000 tons of chemical munitions were dumped in the Baltic, only about 10,000 tons are actual chemicals. Most of this is stuff like Mustard and Phosgene, which are not as deadly as nerve gas (which degrades much more quickly.) The World War I and II era ocean disposal programs involved more than twice as much chemical weapons than are being disposed now. Nerve gas, which degrades quickly in the ocean, takes a lot more time and expense to dispose of on the land (usually via incineration.)

All the main chemical weapons (especially mustard and nerve gas) are easy to manufacture for any nation with a few chemical plants (especially one that produces insecticide, which is basically  nerve gas for insects). But it can take months to modify the plants and get production going. So the elimination of all these old stocks makes the use of chemical weapons less likely, especially by terrorists.




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