Decommissioning Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile at sea: Cape Ray - the boat that will take 700 tons of Assad's toxic material on its final voyage

The unprecedented programme to destroy Assad’s toxic agents – including the world’s first decommissioning ship – is explained by Steve Connor

A former container ship refitted to become the first seaborne vessel capable of decommissioning chemical weapons on the high seas will this week begin the delicate task of destroying the vast stockpile of nerve agents and mustard gas handed over to the international community by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The American-owned Cape Ray will be loaded with up to 700 tons of the most dangerous chemicals from Syria’s stockpile at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. From here it will sail under armed escort to an undisclosed location somewhere in international waters, where the decommissioning will begin in earnest.

Cape Ray has been turned into a floating chemicals-processing plant. Two titanium-lined reactors will work 24 hours a day, six days a week for up to 90 days in order to turn some of the most toxic chemicals known to science into something that can then be treated in a relatively simple manner as hazardous industrial waste.

Last week, the final consignments from Syria arrived by boat at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy. Officially this means there are no chemical weapons left in Syria, although there are concerns that the regime or the opposition forces are still using chlorine gas, a relatively crude chemical weapon.

 

Reports from Syria last month suggested that chlorine, a toxic gas first used as a chemical weapon a century ago in the First World War, is still being used against the Syrian people, allegedly by being dropped from the air as crude but deadly barrel bombs.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body overseeing the stockpile’s removal from Syria and its safe destruction, has been unable to confirm the reports for itself. It sent a team of inspectors to Kafr Zita at the end of May to investigate, but they were attacked shortly after leaving government-controlled territory and had to return to their base.

It seems likely from the reported symptoms of the victims and from the accounts of doctors and medical staff that chlorine was indeed used in the region, but the OPCW has not been able to determine who was responsible. A video uploaded on to YouTube in August 2013 purporting to show a grave containing the bodies of gas attack victims from Ghouta A video uploaded on to YouTube in August 2013 purporting to show a grave containing the bodies of gas attack victims from Ghouta

However, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British chemical-weapons forces and head of SecureBio, a specialist security company, has little doubt that the responsibility lies with the Assad regime. “In my opinion, Assad sees that chemical weapons have a battle-winning ability and, no matter how crude chlorine gas is, it still has the power to terrify,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

Another unresolved issue between the OPCW and the Assad regime is how to destroy Syria’s 12 chemical weapons production facilities – seven reinforced aircraft hangers and five underground bunkers – which must be carried out under the terms of the disarmament agreement, said Michael Luhan, an OPCW spokesman.

Although the facilities were destroyed functionally last year, the Chemical Weapons Convention stipulates that they must also be destroyed physically. Unfortunately, the convention does not define how this should be done, Mr Luhan said.

“We hope to get an agreement on what that destruction will consist of soon, so we can get on with making preparations for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, final preparations are being made for the 650-foot MV Cape Ray to take its deadly consignment under armed escort from Italy into international waters somewhere in the southern Mediterranean.

The task will be a delicate undertaking given that until now chemical weapons from historic stockpiles have either simply been dumped at sea without being destroyed, or have been decommissioned on dry land. This will be the first time it’s been done out at sea, and a spell of prolonged, settled weather and calm water is deemed essential.

The entire operation is simply without precedent, and the OPCW said it is committed to ensuring that nothing toxic is dumped at sea. After being neutralised by a chemical process known as hydrolysis, the waste effluent will be stored in tanks on board Cape Ray before being transported on to land for final disposal.

“The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation,” said Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the OPCW.

“Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict,” Mr Üzümcü said.

Two miniature processing plants below deck on Cape Ray will work in parallel to neutralise the five “priority” chemicals from the Syrian stockpile. The most dangerous is sulphur mustard, the precursor to mustard gas, and “DF compound”, a component of the deadly sarin nerve agent.

About 130 gallons of liquid chemicals can be hydrolysed at any one time in the ship’s twin titanium-lined reactors, where they will be heated and mixed with neutralising agents, such as a caustic solution to neutralise acidity. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

As much as 50 tons of material can be handled each day at full tilt, although the processing will be slower to begin with, said Adam Baker of the US Army Chemical Biological Center in Edgewood, Maryland.

“There is a ramp-up start. It’s going to be a slow start. We’re going to go very deliberately and safely,” Mr Baker added.

Once the decommissioning is complete, Cape Ray will hold about 1.5 million gallons of hazardous waste effluent, which, although dangerous to health, can no longer be converted into chemical weapons. The waste will then be disposed of by commercial operators used to dealing with such hazardous material, the OPCW said.

“No chemicals or effluents will be dumped in the sea at any stage of the removal and destruction process,” the organisation added.

More than 30 countries, in addition to the EU, have been involved in the task of removing and decommissioning the Syrian stockpile. Naval vessels from Denmark, Norway, the UK, China and Russia have provided security at sea.

Two cargo vessels from Denmark and Norway have transported up to 1,300 tons of chemicals from the Syrian port of Latakia to Gioia Tauro, and to the other countries, such as Finland, Germany and the United States, which will undertake the destruction of lower-priority chemical precursors.

Britain has agreed to take 150 tons of material for processing and incineration at the Veolia Environmental Services plant at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. The Foreign Office has emphasised that the material will not be “chemical weapons agents” and that it will be destroyed under an existing contract with the Ministry of Defence.

As the decommissioning operation enters its final phase, the OPCW can be congratulated in managing one of the most difficult and challenging assignments in its 17-year history. The mission was unprecedented on many fronts – technically and politically.

Unfortunately, the agreement and the decommissioning has come too late for the hundreds of Syrians who died after being poisoned by nerve agents fired at three towns, Muadhamiya, Ein Tarma  and Zamalka, in the Ghouta agricultural belt around the Syrian capital Damascus on 21 August 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness