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How to Destroy a Chemical Weapon

The framework for ridding the world of Syria's chemical weapons may be tactical, but the challenge it poses is technological. 
A U.N. chemical weapons expert holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighborhood of Damascus on August 29, 2013. (Reuters)

We have, it seems, a deal.

That's all we have at this point, though, when it comes to getting rid of the chemical weapons that were used last month in what Ban Ki-moon, today, called "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988." Syria, it's estimated, has some 1,000 metric tons of chemical munitions -- including sarin, blister agents, and mustard gas -- in its possession, some of them, it's believed, stored in underground bunkersAssuming that 1). Syria, under the notoriously mendacious Assad regime, actually follows through on its promises, and 2). U.N. inspectors can actually find the weapons Syria has stored in stockpiles hidden throughout the country … what then? What, actually, will be involved in destroying the weapons? 

A lot, unsurprisingly. A lot of money, of time, of effort. The U.S. itself, it's worth remembering, has still not completed the task, began in 1980, of destroying the chemical weapons it amassed during earlier military efforts; last year, we, along with Russia, missed the deadline to have that work completed. The U.S. effort has cost some $35 billion so farUndertaking a similar task in the tumultuous context of a war-torn nation will be proportionally more difficult and expensive and confusing and, potentially, dangerous. It will be a challenge of vaguely Borgesian dimensions.

But what will the challenge actually involve? Below, with the caveat that the process varies greatly according to the weapons being treated and the location of the treatment, is the general process for taking the "deadly" out of "deadly weapon." 

1.  Breakdown of the weapon

First, you have to separate the chemical agents from the non-chemical components of each weapon. Typically, this will involve breaking down each device into the munitions (like rockets and artillery shells), the chemical agents themselves, and, in some cases, the rocket propellant that gives the weapons their explosive power. 

2. Drainage of the weapon's chemical agents

The chemical agents will be drained from the munitions that contain them – a process conducted primarily by specially designed robots, typically (and ideally) as part of an assembly-line setup. The agents are then sent to a holding tank. 

3. Destruction of the weapon's chemical agents

The active chemical agents, having been isolated, are then destroyed. Possible methods for this, depending on the composition of the weapons themselves and on the setting of the destruction, include:

a. Incineration

Incineration, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was the earliest technology the United States used to destroy chemical weapons:  The country began operating the first incineration facility in 1990, on the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. As its name suggests, the technique involves burning chemical agents in high-temperature liquid furnaces to deprive them of their biohazardous capabilities. And it works, the CDC explains, by converting chemical agents "to ash, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other products formed by combustion." When the liquid furnaces that allow it are accessible, incineration is generally the Department of Defense's preferred method for the destruction of chemical agents and munitions.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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