How Do You Destroy Chemical Weapons? The US Slowly Incinerates Them

It's easier said than done.

Friday marks the 28th anniversary of an agreement between the United States and Russia to both end their production of chemical weapons and destroy their previously existing stockpiles. The agreement, made in 1990, was largely symbolic, designed to discourage smaller nations from amassing their own weapons of mass destruction. In September 2017, Russia declared it had eliminated its chemical arsenal. The US government, however, can’t say the same.

The original agreement was that both Russia and the U.S. would finish destroying the weapons in 2007. Both countries missed that deadline and got an extension to 2012. They missed that deadline, too, but Russia didn’t need another extension. The U.S. now has a new deadline of 2023. When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) evaluated the U.S. stockpile in 2012, it reported that America still had 3,134 tons of chemical weapons agents, including mustard gas, sarin, and the nerve agent VX.

In 2013, the New Yorker succinctly summed up why America is taking so long to hold up its end of the deal: It’s because “chemical weapons can be destroyed easily or safely, but not both.”

OPCW agents inspecting in the field.


According to the OPCW, a chemical weapon is a “toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.” The Chemical Weapons Convention specifies that the way in which a toxic chemical is delivered causes death and injury. The most famous chemical weapons are categorized into four types: choking, blister, blood, and nerve agents.

America is trying to get rid of all four, after a long history of chemical weapon production. The US established its Chemical Warfare Service in 1918 as a response to German chemical weapons during World War I. At the time, the US mostly produced mustard gas, a blister agent, and phosgene gas, a choking agent that can cause fluid buildup in the lungs. World War II brought along new weapons, like cyanogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, and lewisite. After that war came sarin and the nerve agent VX.

US production of chemical weapons briefly halted in 1969, under President Richard Nixon. It started up again under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The Bilateral Destruction Agreement between President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was supposed to mark the end of the long ordeal.

How Do You Destroy Chemical Weapons?

There are many ways a nation is not allowed to destroy a chemical weapon. These include: dumping them into water, burying them in land, or burying them in a pit. For a long time, these environmentally dangerous techniques were the default disposal methods. After WWII, for example, about 40,000 metric tons of chemical munitions were tossed into the Baltic Sea.

The OPCW recommends that nations instead destroy chemical weapons using high-temperature destruction technologies, like incineration, or low-temperature destruction technologies, like hydrolysis. The US primarily uses the former. It’s a complicated process, as the OPCW outlines:

“When chemical weapons munitions are dismantled, three groups of component parts are generated; the agent, the explosives and some metal parts. Each component group is treated further separately. Agent combustion in the first chamber of the liquid incinerator at about 2,700 degrees F and additional treatment in the afterburner (second chamber) at approximately 2,000 degrees F leads to the 99.9999 percent destruction and full mineralization of organic compounds; the generated oxides and acid gases are removed by scrubbing. The drained munitions cases and the emptied containers are decontaminated by thermal treatment.”

The JACADS plan, a chemical weapons destruction facility in the U.S. 


Where Are Weapons Destroyed in the US?

To be fair, although the US missed its deadline, it has still destroyed a sizable chunk of its arsenal. As of 2013, 90 percent of its Category I agents and all of its Category II and III agents have been destroyed. The remaining agents are mustard gas, VX, and sarin.

These are kept at the Chemical Depot in Pueblo, Colorado and the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky. Approximately 2,611 tons of mustard gas are stored in Colorado, while the Kentucky facility contains 523 tons of the nerve agents as well as mustard gas-filled munitions.

Twenty-eight years after the original agreement, the US government maintains that its decades-long delay is due to a lack of funding, specialized equipment, and time. This argument is at least partially supported by history: the Desert Army Chemical Depot in Toole, Utah, which once stored 43 percent of American chemical weapons, is now empty and being dismantled — but safely gutting the chemicals and the accompanying munitions took 16 years.

The State Department “remains committed to the complete destruction of its declared chemical weapons stockpile by the end of 2023,” reported the New York Times last year. Time will tell whether or not that will turn out to be true.

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