Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Current US Chemical Weapons Stockpile Comprises 3,134 tons-- But Some Has Leaked and Been Lost; Some More May be Buried

According to the US Army:

"The Blue Grass chemical weapons stockpile comprises more than 500 tons of blister and nerve agent in weapons."  
This stockpile includes sarin, VX and mustard, enough to (theoretically) kill millions of humans, packed into weapons and presumably ready for deployment.  The weapons are being held pending construction of a facility to destroy them. But this is an expensive undertaking.  How does $10.6 billion sound to destroy remaining US chemical weapons (only 10% of the original stockpile) at two sites?   

The Blue Grass facility currently employs over 1200 workers.  Destruction operations are scheduled to begin in 2020, despite the Chemical Weapons Convention agreement (signed by the US) that all weapons were to be destroyed by April 2012According to the Army:
The Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program’s mission is to destroy the last two remaining U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles – 2,611 tons of mustard agent in projectiles and mortars at the U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, and 523 tons of mustard and nerve agent in rockets and projectiles at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. 
Here is the US Army's map of its stockpiles, including chemical munitions still in storage and those already destroyed.   It is not like the old days, when you simply put unwanted chemical weapons on board ships, sent them offshore and scuttled the boats and the chemical weapons.  Check out some of the many places the US admits it simply dumped chemical weapons in the ocean.  Reportedly 32 dumps were off US shores and 42 were off foreign shoresConsider the alternate method for getting rid of chemical agents at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a home of chemical weapons since 1942.  A 12,000 foot deep well was drilled in 1961 and unwanted chemical agents flushed down the drain.  After earthquakes (710 earthquakes in 3.5 years) started appearing, the army had to pump the chemical stew back up and find another way to get rid of it.
According to a 2006 CDC brochure, and recently updated CDC docs here and here, additional non stockpile CW materials include "recovered chemical weapons, chemical samples and binary chemical weapons":
The original stockpile contained 63 million pounds of chemical weapons disseminated at eight sites in the continental United States and at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Additional non-stockpile materiel, such as buried chemical warfare materiel, is located at more than 200 sites in the United States and U.S. territories.
Nowadays, ridding ourselves of the chemical weapons stockpile is totally different:  you build fabulously complex and expensive facilities before destroying a single weapon.  (But it is okay to let them leak on-site, endangering Americans; see below.) At this rate, assuming on-time performance, we might be rid of all our chemical weapons in another ten years.  And be at least $10.6 billion poorer.  
Although the US is paying a king's ransom to safely dispose of its remaining chemical weapons, it failed to prevent repeated leaks of sarin at the Blue Grass arsenal--at least 3 times in the last six years. The media reported as recently as last year, and also in 2007 and 2008, that sarin was leaking. When the international chemical weapons inspectors who verify destruction do an inspection, they will probably not find all 523 tons of agent on site to be destroyed, and the leaks may be cited as the reason why.  Might some "leaked" or buried agents have found their way overseas?  
My point is simply that accurately accounting for tons of chemical weapons is no slam dunk, here or elsewhere.  When you have leaks, agents can go missing despite controls.  With over 200 US sites that contained CW materiel, it is virtually impossible to have an accurate inventory.

UPDATE Sept 12:  The NY Times yesterday agreed with me that "monitoring and securing unconventional weapons have proved challenging..."-- but the Times confined the challenge to Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Syria.  With no attribution, the Times cited a "Pentagon study" that claimed 75,000 troops would be needed to secure chemical weapons in a war zone.  Talk about a wild-ass guess.  Is the Times' reportage aimed at souring the US on Syria's offer to give up its chemical weapons?

Adding insult to injury, the same Times article misleads on the status of US compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The CWC gave a few nations, including the US and Russia, an extension until 2012 to destroy all their chemicals weapons, with no permitted extensions beyond that time.  Both the US and Russia maintain several thousand tons of chemical weapons.  Each is noncompliant with the treaty.  However, the Times stated, "The nations with the biggest arsenals — the United States and Russia — have received deadline extensions"-- without informing readers the final deadline was missed and we do not plan to destroy all our CW for another ten years!

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