The Chemical Weapons Threat Remains: Shaping a Way Forward


By Richard Weitz

04/ 19/2011 – The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (commonly referred to as the Chemical Weapons Convention and abbreviated as the CWC bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of offensive chemical weapons (CW).

States Parties to the CWC are also prohibited from threatening, or engaging in, military preparations to use chemical weapons. These provisions apply universally in terms of time and place. The Convention is of indefinite duration and aims for comprehensive coverage of all global activities potentially related to chemical weapons. Its regulations encompass government and private sector activities as well as chemical weapons storage facilities (CWSFs), chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs), and chemical weapons destruction facilities (CWDFs).

All States Parties to the CWC are obliged to declare any stockpiles of chemical weapons they hold, including their number and type, and any facilities that store, produce, or destroy them. These declarations describe the location of any CWSFs as well as the location and characteristics of any CWPFs. Each State Party commits to eliminate all the chemical weapons in its possession, under their jurisdiction or control, or that it might have abandoned in another country, normally at designated CWDFs, which are subject to regular on-site oversight by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The States Parties are required to destroy any CWPFs or, as permitted by the CWC, convert them to non-military uses. Furthermore, they must declare chemical industry plants that annually produce, process, or consume “scheduled” toxic chemicals and their precursors in quantities above certain CWC-specified amounts. They also must provide information on certain other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) that produce large quantities of discrete organic chemicals (DOCs).

The CWC mainly applies to assembled unitary chemical weapons such as artillery projectiles, mortars, air bombs, rockets, rocket warheads, and spray tanks; chemical weapons agents stored in bulk; binary munitions that only become dangerous when their two components are combined; and recovered chemical weapons munitions. The CWC does permit the use of small quantities of chemical weapons for non-offensive purposes such as research, medicine, and the development of CW defenses.

The Convention allows a State Party possessing chemical weapons some latitude in their choice of elimination methods—which must destroy the chemical warfare agents, the conventional explosives used to detonate the weapons, and some dangerous metal parts—with the exclusion of ecologically unacceptable techniques such as burying them in land, dumping them in bodies of water, or dispersing them in an open pit.

The enormous quantity and sophistication of the chemical weapons in the United States and Russia makes only two types of CW destruction techniques practical: high temperature technologies like incineration, and low-temperature technologies like hydrolysis followed by treatment of the resulting reaction masses.

In the United States, the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) served as a prototype plant to develop a “base-line” incineration technology that was then applied to a number of chemical destruction facilities: Tooele (TOCDF), Anniston (ANCDF), Pine-Bluff (PBCDF) and Umatilla (UMCDF).

Public pressure against the environmental consequences of incineration led the U.S. government to also launch an Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment program to develop several low-temperature elimination technologies as an alternative to the base-line incineration technology.

These technologies, constantly under development, typically involve processes that neutralize the agent at the main destruction facility while the generated hydrolisates are irreversibly disposed at off-site commercial Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facilities (TSDF), which are also subject to OPCW verification. The United States has used this low-temperature technique at three large facilities to eliminate agents stored in bulks: Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (ABCDF), Newport Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (NECDF) and Pine-Bluff Binary Destruction Facility (PBBDF).

The U.S. government has also decided to apply the alternative low-temperature elimination technique at the two remaining U.S. CWDFs under construction: hydrolysis followed by biodegradation at Pueblo, Colorado and hydrolysis followed by Super Critical Water Oxidation at Blue Grass, Kentucky. These two facilities are at an early stage of construction.

From 2006 to April 2010, the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency also ran a separate Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel Project at the Pine Bluff Explosive Destruction System (PBEDS), located at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas., to destroy recovered munitions such as 4.2-inch mortars and German Traktor rockets captured during World War II.

The remaining 10% of the U.S. stockpile will be destroyed by the two CWDFs currently under construction in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, through a separate U.S. Army Element Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, using either the incineration or agent neutralization destruction methods.

The original CWC timetable specified that, five years after its entry into force, states with declared chemical weapons had to eliminate 20% of their stockpiles. After seven years, they were required to destroy 45% of their CW arsenals. Ten years after entry into force, the States Parties had to eliminate all their chemical weapons in a verifiable and irrevocable manner.

Yet, by the original April 2007 deadline, only about a quarter of all declared CW stocks had been eliminated. The convention provided for a one-time extension of as long as five years beyond the April 2007 destruction deadline.

On December 8, 2006, the CWC Conference of State Parties (CSP) granted the following extensions: South Korea to December 31, 2008; India to April 28, 2009; Libya to December 31, 2010; and both Russia and the United States to April 29, 2012, the maximum permissible extension. The CSP also extended the intermediate destruction deadlines for Albania.

When the CWC entered into force in April 1997, the United States possessed approximately 30,000 tons of chemical nerve and blister agents.  The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency took charge of destroying 90% of this total, consisting of 28,350 tons of blister (mustard) and nerve (VX and sarin) agents.  It eliminated 50% of the original stockpile by December 2007 and 60% by April 2009. On July 1, 2010, the Agency announced that it had incinerated or chemically neutralized 75% of the U.S. chemical agent stockpile, or 22,958 tons of chemical agents and more than 2.1 million chemical munitions.

In his presentation to the CSP on November 29, 2010, Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak, the U.S. Permanent Representative, said that the United Sates had “destroyed more than 81% of our Category 1 chemical weapons, which includes the destruction of over 82% of our chemical rockets, the destruction of 96.6% of our nerve agents, and the destruction of all of our binary chemical weapons. The United States has also destroyed all of our former chemical weapons production facilities.” Ambassador Mikulak estimated that the United States will have eliminated 90 percent of its original stockpile by the April 2012 deadline.

According to the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency, as of March 16, 2011, the United States had destroyed 85 per cent of its original stockpile of 27,768 tons of declared offensive CW, including all advanced binary weapons. The Agency reports the following chemical agent destruction status for each facility:

  • 100 percent of stockpile at the Aberdeen, MD Facility neutralized
  • 98 percent of stockpile at the Tooele, UT Facility destroyed
  • 100 percent of stockpile at the Johnston Island Facility destroyed
  • 93 percent of stockpile at the Anniston, AL Facility destroyed
  • 70 percent of stockpile at the Umatilla, OR Facility destroyed
  • 100 percent of stockpile at the Pine Bluff, AR Facility destroyed
  • 100 percent of stockpile a the Newport, IN Facility neutralized

The Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility and the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama are expected to eliminate their entire stockpiles by October 2011. The Army would complete its CW destruction efforts in December 2011 at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

The Army now calculates that its chemical elimination effort will cost approximately $24 billion in total.  The U.S. CW disposal program, when first envisioned in 1985, was expected to be finished within a decade and cost roughly $1.8 billion. The United States has already spent more than $22 billion eliminating its stockpiles. Recent estimates place the total cost of destroying all U.S. chemical weapons on accordance with the CWC at approximately $36 billion.

The States Parties have not decided what sanctions to apply, if any, when the United States or another CW-possessing country misses its extended deadline due to environmental, financial or other reasons unrelated to deliberate efforts to renege on their obligations. In April 2008, Director-General Pfirter had suggested that the States Parties might convene a Special Session of the CSP to decide next steps.

But in October 2009, the OPCW Executive Council asked chairman Jorge Lomónaco Tonda to commence informal discussions on how and when to start consultations on states that could not meet their “final extended deadlines” for CW elimination.  At the June 29, 2010 session of the Executive Council, Ambassador Mikulak called for “a political solution, not a technical change or an amendment to the Convention.”

In theory, the other CWC members could apply penalties to countries that fail to meet their CW destruction deadlines or that fail to comply with their Article VII obligations. These might include limiting their voting rights at OPCW meetings or preventing the organization from employing citizens from those countries. The most severe punishment would entail imposing sanctions that would prohibit them from importing or exporting certain chemicals.

Thus far, however, the other States Parties have been content to receive evidence—through such measures as their national budget allocations for CWC-related tasks as well as their hosting routine inspections—that these lagging countries are making progress towards eventual elimination of their CW stockpiles and incorporation of CWC obligations into their domestic legislation, even if at a slower pace than desired.

In separate comments in December 2009, both the current and future director-generals of the OPCW downplayed the damage that these missed deadlines would inflict on the international chemical disarmament regime. Pfirter argued that “we need not…make the ultimate success of the treaty dependent on any particular date.”

Ahmet Üzümcü, who succeeded Pfirter as the OPCW Director-General on July 25, 2010, expressed his belief that the two governments’ commitments to eliminate all their chemical weapons was “unwavering.” Üzümcü termed the reasons for the delays as “more technical…than political.”

After informal consultations with the Russian government, Pfirter confirmed on June 29, 2010 that Russia would join the United States in missing its April 2012 deadline.  However, he said he felt reassured that both countries were seeking to meet their commitment to “the key goal of achieving the total and irreversible destruction of their declared stockpiles.” He added that Moscow and Washington “have consistently shown their resolve to abide by their commitments under the Convention, and I for one have no doubt that they will continue to stay on track.”

Shortly before the transition in office from Pfirter to Üzümcü in July 2010, both OPCW director-generals commented further on the issue. Pfirter called the missed deadline “regrettable” and an “unfortunate circumstance,” but he quickly added that he was “nevertheless confident that both countries will continue to work hard in order to fulfill their CW disarmament obligations at the earliest and that the Organisation’s response to these events will remain balanced and constructive.” Üzümcü offered similar evenhanded comments, reaffirming the importance of meeting the objective of complete elimination, but indicating a lack of alarm at a further delay in reaching that goal:

“Complete destruction of all chemical weapons stockpiles by possessor states is a primary objective of the Convention. During my visits to the United States and the Russian Federation, I was impressed by their determination to fulfill their obligations as well as the dedication and professional skills of those who run the demilitarization programs. These are indeed costly, labour-intensive and hazardous activities. Tremendous financial, human, and material resources have been allocated. We must maintain our efforts until every single chemical weapon is destroyed. We don’t know yet the exact level of destruction to be reached by April 2012. It will certainly be significant. If however the process cannot be completed, this will be due, I am convinced, to technical reasons. I am encouraged to see that consultations on this issue have already been underway under the leadership of the Chairman of the Executive Council. Our focus must be to keep the momentum, to highlight the unprecedented success of the CWC regime, and to preserve its credibility.”

An overly stern response by the OPCW for the expected U.S. delay would be unfair given that financial and technical challenges as well as environmental and safety considerations are causing the delay, rather than a desire to retain chemical weapons.

Along with Russia, the United States has no reason to retain chemical weapons since it has more readily usable conventional weapons and more powerful nuclear weapons. It would also be unwise to sanction the United States since any sanctions would not accelerate the elimination timetables. It would also undermine the generally non-confrontational CWC-related deliberations have been characterized by consensus and compromise for over a decade.

Although the Executive Council’s rules of procedure allow for two-thirds majority voting on substantive issues and simple majority voting on procedural questions, the consensus principle is so strong that the Council has taken only one vote in its entire history, on an administrative matter.

A satisfactory compromise might be to exempt both countries from additional sanctions in exchange for continued extraordinary transparency and confidence-building measures, such as their current practice of receiving visits by Executive Council representatives to CW dismantlement sites, perhaps supplemented by additional inspections. This would demonstrate the willingness by all sides to prioritize chemical weapons elimination, while also recognizing the very real difficulties involved in achieving it.