Ship and crew prepared to neutralise Syria's chemical arsenal


The mission to safely dismantle the chemical weapons is part of a multi-national effort that is unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Rota -- 11/04/2014


Destruction of the chemical weapons will take place in negative-pressured chambers that prevent vapors from escaping into the atmosphere. [Drazen Remikovic/SETimes]

A US ship has been outfitted to safely neutralise the most hazardous of Syria's arsenal of deadly chemicals which make up Syria’s chemical weapons program. It is this program which international observers said was responsible for a deadly attack last year against hundreds of civilians in Damascus during that country's four-year-old civil war.

The MV Cape Ray, 197-metre container ship, is currently in Rota, Spain, in preparation for its mission to destroy the weapons. It was made available to reporters on Thursday (April 10th) in advance of its mission.

Authorities plan to neutralise the chemicals at sea in international waters using proven hydrolysis technology. All waste from the hydrolysis process would be safely and properly stored on board until it is disposed of at commercial facilities to be determined by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Officials emphasised that no hydrolysis byproducts will be released into the sea or air.

The most sensitive work will be done in chambers on board the ship that are negatively pressurized – meaning that no air can escape the room during the destruction process. The technology ensures that the air and sea environment will remain secure as the chemicals are being neutralised.

Deputy Chief of Cabinet to Director-General OPCW Aamir Shouket noted it is an important mission with international support.

"All 15 members of the Security Council unanimously voted for the resolution on Syria. That never happened before," Shouket told SETimes. "That is the proof that eliminating of chemical weapons is very important for the security of the whole world."

Navy Rear Adm. Robert Burke, director of operations, US Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, told SETimes that 63 specialists, in addition to the Cape Ray's regular crew and security personnel, will work on neutralising the material.


More than 60 specialists and security personnel will augment the Cape Ray’s crew during the mission. [Drazen Remikovic/SETimes]

"During hydrolysis, the chemical agents are broken down with hot water and then further neutralised with sodium hydroxide," Burke said. "The two titanium reactors on the Cape Ray can process five to 25 tonnes per day, depending on the material being treated."

Syria has an April 30th deadline to remove all its nerve agent and poison gas materials, estimated at 1,300 metric tonnes. Under a timeline drawn up by OPCW, about 560 metric tonnes would be neutralised onboard the Cape Ray by June 30th. The remainder of the chemicals would be taken directly to commercial destruction facilities in various countries.

The first batch of Syrian chemicals left the Syrian port of Latakia on January 7th, on a Danish ship.

In a multinational operation, Russia and China are ensuring the security of the sea lanes into the port of Latakia. Loading operations are supervised by the Syrians with checks being done by the Joint Mission to the U.N.

Once all the chemicals are loaded onto the Danish ship Ark Futura and the Norwegian ship Taiko, ships provided by Denmark and Norway are escorted by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian warships to Italy's Gioia Tauro port for trans-load of the materials from the Ark Futura to the Cape Ray.

The Taiko, with its load of industrial-type chemicals, will not move to Gioia Tauro. Rather, it will proceed to Finland where those chemicals will be destroyed in a commercial facility.

"It is a safe and secure environmental technique, which will allow that not a single drop of waste or poison fall in to the sea or anywhere else," Shouket said.

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Some chemical materials have already been destroyed within Syria, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said.

Syria has already missed several deadlines in the chemical weapons elimination schedule, starting to remove the dangerous chemicals on January 7th, but the heads of the organisation said they still hoped that Damascus could meet a new final deadline of June 30th.

"We have to remember that Syria is a country at war. The security situation can shift from day to day," said Sigrid Kaag, special co-ordinator of the joint OPCW mission at the UN.

How successful do you believe that the joint military operation will be in protecting civilian populations from chemical weapons? Add your thoughts in the comment field below.

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