Russia Destroys Last Chemical Weapons, US slated for 2023 (2017)

Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, speaks at a ceremony October 11 following the completion of the destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons. (Photo credit: OPCW)

November 2017 |Alicia Sanders-Zakre | Arms Control Association

“Russia finished destroying its chemical weapons arsenal, once the largest in the world at nearly 40,000 metric tons, and criticized the United States for its delays in doing likewise.


Russia was mandated under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to destroy its chemical weapons by 2007, although it received several extensions, most recently to 2020. Similarly, the United States originally had a 2007 deadline, which was pushed to 2012 and then 2023. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

The CWC, which entered into force in 1997, has 192 states-parties. It is implemented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which to date has verified the destruction of 96.3 percent of declared chemical weapons stockpiles of states-parties worldwide.

The Pentagon spokesman noted that “Russia has solicited and received very significant funding from international donors,” including the US, which provided “over $1 billion in financial and technical assistance for the Russian chemical weapon destruction program.”

Russia’s chemical weapons destruction, completed Sept. 27, was “a momentous occasion” and a “historic milestone,” said OPCW Deputy Director-General Hamid Ali Rao at a commemorative ceremony.

Russia declared an arsenal of 39,967 metric tons of chemical agents, including lewisite, mustard, phosgene, sarin, soman, and VX when it signed the CWC in 1993. It established its first on-site destruction facility in 2002, eliminating about 30 percent of its arsenal by 2009 and 85 percent by 2015.

Russia eliminated its arsenal by neutralizing the chemicals. Paul Walker, director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability program, described the technique in an Oct. 19 email to Arms Control Today as “a wet-chemistry process of draining all weapons and storage tanks of chemical agents, and then mixing the agents with hot water and caustic reagents such as sodium hydroxide to destroy the deadly toxic nature of the agents.”

Russia operated a total of five chemical weapons destruction facilities. All but the facility in the town of Kizner, about 620 miles east of Moscow, had finished destruction and been closed by 2015.

The U.S. expects to finally finish getting rid of its chemical weapons in 2023. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, Diana Ricketts)
September 13, 2013

Russia’s method of chemical destruction produced as a byproduct large quantities of toxic waste. Russia will treat the waste in the future at chemical destruction facilities in Kambarka, Gorny, and Shchuch’ye, according to Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov, who addressed the issue in remarks at the commemorative ceremony held at Kizner. He asserted that Russia would decontaminate all chemical weapons destruction facilities.

Although Russia spent more than $5 billion to destroy its chemical weapons, according to Russian state media, it also benefited from significant international assistance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in remarks Sept. 27, credited more than 15 countries with cooperation.

America’s weapons of mass destruction: By the numbers:

Tons of chemical weapons in the U.S. stockpile, mostly consisting of mustard gas and various nerve agents.

Tons of chemical weapons that Syria is believed to have.

The year the U.S. military believes it will finally be done getting rid of its chemical weapons, which are stored in facilities near Colorado Springs, Colo., and Richmond, Ky. The original deadline was 2007.

Tons of chemical weapons the United States built up from World War I until 1968. Pressure in the 1970s caused the country to cease production of chemical weapons and eventually start destroying them.

Tons of chemical weapons amassed by Russia in that same time period.

$40 billion
Estimated total cost to the U.S. government of destroying all of its chemical weapons — if the task is finished on schedule.

Percentage of the U.S. chemical weapons supply that has already been destroyed.

$500 million
Amount spent by the United States each year to assist other countries in destroying their stores of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

Estimated number of nuclear warheads possessed by the United States.

Operational U.S. nuclear warheads assigned to land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and bombs ready for deployment in military aircraft.

Operational nuclear warheads in Russia.

Maximum estimate of warheads that Kim Jong Un can build with North Korea’s existing supply of plutonium.

Nuclear weapons possessed by the United States in 1967.

9 megatons
Amount of energy released by the B53 nuclear bomb, which is 900 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb was dismantled in Amarillo, Texas, in 2011.

Nuclear weapons (not counting warheads in storage or awaiting dismantlement) allowed by the New START Treaty, signed by Russia and the United States in 2010.

Sources: Associated PressBBCCNNBrookings InstituteThe Guardian(2)The Washington Post (2)

Vladimir Yermakov, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s Department for Weapons Control and Non-Proliferation, thanked the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and France specifically for their financial help. Some of the U.S. funding and technical assistance was provided though the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program.

Other States’ Destruction

With the elimination of Russia’s chemical weapons, the burden falls on the two remaining CWC member states who have yet to complete destruction of their declared arsenals: Iraq and the United States.

The size and quality of Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal is unknown, and ongoing conflict in the Middle East presents challenges for safe removal and neutralization. Planning is reportedly underway to begin elimination.

The United States has been destroying its declared arsenal of 28,000 metric tons of chemical agents, second in size to Russia’s, since the 1990s. It has destroyed about 90 percent and is scheduled to complete destruction by 2023. The United States, which has completed destruction of five of its stockpiles, currently operates a chemical weapons destruction facility in Colorado and plans to open one in Kentucky in a few years.

The long, costly process of destroying chemical weapons

Debra Michaels, a chemical operations manager, inspects mustard agent shells in 2010 in a bunker at the Pueblo Army Chemical Storage facility in Pueblo, Colo.
AP file photo/Ed Andrieski

Beneath concrete and earthen bunkers in Kentucky and Colorado sit 6.2 million pounds of debilitating and deadly chemical weapons.

These U.S military rockets, mortar shells and bulk containers remain one of the biggest such arsenals left in the world. But like the other 90 percent of the American stockpile has been, the remaining arsenal is slated to be destroyed in the coming decade.

“These weren’t designed to be disassembled. They were designed to be used in war,” said Kathy DeWeese, spokeswoman for the Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, which is overseeing construction of the final two U.S. destruction facilities.

Since 1990, workers and robots at plants in six states and the middle of the Pacific Ocean have systematically destroyed some 55 million pounds of liquid VX, sarin and mustard agent in a variety of containers and weapons — some dating back to World War I. The decades-long process of destroying all of America’s chemical weapons is expected to cost around $35 billion, according to a recent estimate.

The United States has destroyed its chemical weapons at rate nearly one-third of Russia’s due in part to differences between the two countries’ stockpiles, according to Walker. Russian chemical agents were stored in large tanks without explosives or propellants, but U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles include more explosive components, requiring technically difficult and time-consuming destruction.

Since completing its chemical weapons destruction, Russia has criticized the United States for lagging. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club on Oct. 19, noted the U.S. delay to 2023, which “does not look proper for a nation that claims to be a champion of nonproliferation and control.”

The United States considers that it is operating in compliance with CWC requirements. “We remain on track to meet our planned completion date,” Kenneth Ward, U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, said in an Oct. 10 statement to the OPCW Executive Council.

U.S. set to destroy big chemical weapon stockpile

FILE – This Jan. 21, 2010 file photo shows 105mm shells containing mustard agent that are stored in a bunker at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Storage facility in Pueblo, Colo. Blowing up defective chemical weapons inside a closed chamber in Colorado would cause no significant environmental impacts, the Army said Monday August 13. The finding, which was expected, brings the Army one step closer to destroying an estimated 780,000 shells containing 2,600 tons of mustard agent stored at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
DENVER — The U.S. Army plans to start operating a $4.5 billion plant next week that will destroy the nation’s largest remaining stockpile of mustard agent, complying with an international treaty that bans chemical weapons, officials said Wednesday.

The largely automated plant at the military’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado will begin destroying about 780,000 chemical-filled artillery shells soon after this weekend, said Greg Mohrman, site manager for the plant. He declined to be specific, citing security concerns and possible last-minute delays.

Robots will dismantle the shells, and the plant will use water and bacteria to neutralize the mustard agent, which can maim or kill by damaging skin, the eyes and airways. At full capacity, the facility can destroy an average of 500 shells a day and is expected to finish in mid-2020.

The depot has already destroyed 560 shells and bottles of mustard agent that were leaking or had other problems that made them unsuitable for the plant.

Those containers were placed in a sealed chamber, torn open with explosive charges and neutralized with chemicals. That system can only destroy four to six shells a day.

The shells stored at the Pueblo depot contain a combined 2,600 tons of the chemical. They are being destroyed under a 1997 treaty.

Irene Kornelly, chairwoman of a citizens advisory commission that Congress established as a liaison between the public and the plant operators, said her group had no remaining safety concerns.

The Army stores an additional 523 tons of mustard and deadly nerve agents at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Blue Grass is expected to start destroying its weapons next year, finishing in 2023.

New Phase for CWC

With Russia’s chemical weapons elimination and the revised U.S. destruction deadline six years away, experts say that the CWC will soon be moving into a “post-chemical-weapons-destruction” phase.

John Hart, head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, outlined possible futures for the OPCW in a Sept. 29 blog post. “At least two visions may be realized: the first in which the OPCW is focused on chemical-weapon threats with most resources allocated accordingly, the second in which the OPCW serves as a model of international outreach and capacity building for the peaceful uses of chemistry.”

“Now the goal of a chemical-weapons-free-world is much nearer,” declared Sergio Duarte, president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and a former UN high representative for disarmament affairs, in a Sept. 27 statement. He laid out several steps for the CWC regime to pursue. “It is necessary…to ensure the 100 percent universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to further improve safeguards against any re-emergence of chemical weapons on the basis of traditional and new technologies and against any attempts by any actors to get hold of or to use these prohibited weapons.”

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