Procedure for Destroying Chemical Weapons

September 20, 2013
Public Liaison Group, Russian Federal Department for Safe Storage and Destruction of Chemical Weapons

This is an interesting, though highly technical, article published in Ria Novosti, a federally owned outlet with one of the widest circulations in Russia. It details the technical processes that are required to destroy chemical weapons. The article makes no mention of Syria, though it is clear that one of the key reasons that this was published is because of the plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical stockpiles, a plan which Russia is championing on the international stage.

On one hand, the article goes out of its way to remind the reader that the Russian government is perhaps the most experienced country in dismantling chemical stockpiles. As such, if any country can destroy Assad’s CW, it is Russia. On the other hand, however, by laying out the technical process, it becomes immediately obvious to the reader just how complicated and expensive (and dangerous) it would be to carry out this process anywhere, especially in a war zone like Syria. – Ed.

Chemical weapons are one of the forms of weapons of mass destruction. The result of the use of chemical weapons can be severe environmental and genetic consequences, the elimination of which requires a long period of time.

Chemical weapons are one of the forms of weapons of mass destruction, whose action is based on the use of chemical warfare toxic substances. Chemical warfare toxic substances include poisonous substances and toxins that have an injurious effect on the human organism or animals and also phytotoxicants which can be employed for combat purposes to destroy various forms of plants.

According to military terminology, chemical weapons include chemical ammunition for one-time use (artillery shells, air bombs, bullets, etc.) and chemical weapons for multiple-use or so-called chemical warfare devices (liquid and spray aviation devices, thermomechanical and mechanical generators).

According to the legal definition which is used in international treaty processes, chemical weapons include: toxic chemicals and chemical reagents included in any stage of their production; ammunition and devices intended for damage by toxic chemicals; any equipment especially intended for the use of chemical ammunition and other analogous devices.

As a result of the use of chemical weapons, there can be severe environmental and genetic consequences, the elimination of which requires a long period of time.

In 1993 in Paris, the Convention on Chemical Weapons was opened for signature by UN member states. It prohibited the production and storage of many chemical means. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (the CWC) went into effect on 29 April 1997 for 87 states (another 22 countries ratified the Convention within 180 days after it went into effect).

The most important obligation under the Convention is the destruction of chemical weapons. This is also the most expensive element of implementing the Convention.

A large portion of the expenditures for destruction are related to investments in modern technology to ensure the minimization of damage for the population and the environment at each stage of the transport and destruction of the ammunition stores, and also the process of removing and destroying the poisonous substances, given that the destruction must take place in highly-specialized facilities.

There are two basic technological approaches to the destruction of poisonous substances – direct incineration and neutralization by means of various chemical reactions. The treaty signatories must provide detailed plans to the Technical Secretariat in which they indicate the process which will be used in the destruction operation, and the time periods, subject to monitoring.

One of the fundamental requirements is the guarantee of safety of people and the environment, achieved through the use of the modern progressive method of destruction of poisonous substances which was developed by Russian scientists – a two-stage technology of destruction of chemical weapons through hydrolysis, when during the first stage the poisonous substances are destroyed through the action of a chemical reagent and during the second stage, the reactive mass formed is subject to baking in a thermal oven (up to 1,000 degrees Celsius).

In September 2013, the US announced that it was transferring to the two-stage technology of destroying chemical weapons. Today, this is the only technology in the world which has successfully passed through joint international expert evaluation under laboratory conditions both on American as well as Russian poisonous substances and which has obtained a positive appraisal from the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
According to the information from the Public Liaison Group of the facility for storage and destruction of chemical weapons in the village of Kizner in the Udmurt Region, which were developed within the framework of providing background on activities to implement the Convention, the process of destroying chemical ammunition stores begins with their delivery from the warehouse in the manufacturing plant. The delivery is made in hermetically-sealed technical transport containers in specially-equipped vehicles.

Before shipment, the ammunition is subjected to 100% exit control.

At the first stage in the manufacturing buildings, the ammunition is once again inspected and prepared for destruction.

Next, the ammunition is moved to an assembly line for dismantling, in which the hulls of the ammunition are drilled off and the toxic substance is extracted. From that moment, all the operations with the ammunition are done automatically.

The management of the technological process is done with a remote control console, with the use of micro-processors for automatic regulation, an alarm system, access locks, and emergency accident prevention systems.

The extracted poisonous substances are then loaded into a reactor in which the process of de-toxification takes place with the obtaining of the reactive masses. The reactive masses formed are subject to further processing which includes their thermal disintegration with a multi-stage system of purification of the gaseous emissions.

The transport of the liquid poisonous substances obtained from the reactive masses through pipelines is done with the use of a vacuum created by vacuum pumps.

After the extraction of the poisonous substances, the ammunition is washed repeatedly with a de-gasifying solution. At the next stage, the ammunition is subject to a thermal processing under which the thermal-destruction of the remains of the poisonous substances is done in micropores and in a varnish covering of the housing, which guarantees the safe conducting of the next operations. At the final stage, the housings of the ammunition are sent for irreversible deformation, where they are put into a state unfit for further use.

In the event that the threshold concentrations of the poisonous substances in the air are exceeded, emergency ventilation automatically turns on in the plant buildings, and measures are taken to remove the gaseousness. The level of gases are constantly monitored by automatic gas control devices.

In order to guarantee environmental safety during the destruction, at each facility for destruction of poisonous substances, there are several independent environmental monitoring agencies. This is an agency of the facility at which the destruction is taking place, state centers for environmental control and monitoring which maintain oversight of local environmental agencies and also foreign observers.

By 2013, Russia had destroyed more than 76% of its chemical weapons reserves, about 30,000 tons.