Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A toxic legacy- Russia’s struggle to dispose of its chemical weapons


Years after the cold war in which they were readied to be used, Russia and the USA still have tonnes of chemical weapons. They are now nearing the end of the process of dismantling them, or at least they should be. In Russia problems with ageing stockpiles have started a race against time to dispose of the deadly weapons before it might be too late.

Most of today's destruction of old stockpiles of chemical weapons goes back to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ratified in 1997. Although various agreements had essentially made chemical weapons unusable some years before then, that agreement really spelled the end of chemical weapons stockpiles in many countries, including the old cold war rivals Russia and the USA. In 1997 Russia declared an arsenal of just under 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, that was more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. declared just under 31,000 tonnes.

To date Russia says it has destroyed 66% of its stockpile. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile as of last January.

The declared intention was to have them all gone by the agreed CWC deadline of April 2012. But even that had been an extension. Now they've missed that deadline, apparently due to the environmental difficulties of disposing of these chemicals, which range from irritating to lethal, safely. 

Russia has said that many of the casings these chemicals are kept in, either containers or artillery shells are now in such poor condition it's slowed the task down. 

With these disposal problems remaining it seems likely it could take another four years, until 2016 for them all to have been destroyed. Chemical weapons, like many chemicals, have expiry dates. The trouble for Russia is that the remaining stockpile expires on January the 1st 2013. That makes everything more dangerous and urgent. Expiry dates indicate when chemicals might start to become unstable and when their containers become too old.  At a conference held by the news agency Interfax on Tuesday General Vladimir Mandych said the numbers of Russia's chemical weapons on the 'urgent' list is growing by the day. 

For some it's already too late. There have been reports of leaks of some of Russia's chemical weapons. Among them are three 2-tonne aviation bombs that starting leaking though it wasn't said what was inside them. Some 6 tonnes of the deadly nerve gas VX started leaking back in July, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports. VX is the most toxic nerve agent ever synthesised so far as has been tested. Even worse there were no experts there in time so soldiers rushed to the scene equipped only with gas masks and not the full isolation suits necessary to protect from this deadly chemical weapon. The lethal dose is estimated at just 10 milligrams.

And the task ahead only gets worse with the remaining weapons the most complex to dismantle, which is more costly and dangerous to do, while all the time the weapons pass their intended storage life.

The countries involved actually do seem to want to get rid of this remaining bulk of weapons, if a few years late. And this is an example of an area of post cold war cooperation. It's an international operation, with the U.S. and EU providing Russia with equipment and helping to build disposal and storage sites. Security remains high against the risk of theft of any of these chemical agents. Remember there was a Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a cult in 1995.

Russia is also trying to make a thorough job of it. They first chemically deactivate the agents, usually breaking them down into less harmful compounds, then burn that matter until it is safe. 

Of course this also ties into this week's row over the threat Syria may use it's chemical weapons. The only three countries in the world that were thought to have VX nerve gas were the U.S., Russia and....surprise, surprise....Syria. The U.S. finished destroying all of its VX in 2008. Although the general wouldn't comment on it, it's almost certain that Syria's chemical weapons were supplied by the Soviet Union. Russia's is now close to closing this dark chapter in the history of warfare on its own territory, and hopefully they will never be deemed necessary again. However, in Syria, there is the chance that chemical weapons might have a last, dreadful sting in their tail.

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