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The M/V Cape Ray Readies to Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons

When the U.S. and Russia hammered out the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” in September, the who and the how of destroying Syria’s extensive chemical weapons stockpiles was left unanswered. Now, as the M/V Cape Ray prepares to leave Portsmouth, Va. for a yet-to-be-determined location in the Mediterranean, some answers to those questions are starting to take shape.

The rapid equipping of the Cape Ray for this unorthodox duty was enabled by advance planning that took place even before an official request was made.

Accompanying the 35 mariners aboard the almost 650-foot-long Cape Ray will be 64 U.S. Army chemical specialists from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Edgewood, Md. Also accompanying the ship will a security team and a contingent from U.S. European Command (EUCOM). Once the ship leaves port in about two weeks, the operational part of the mission is scheduled to take about 90 days.

Frank Kendall

Frank Kendall, under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, speaks to reporters during a visit to the Cape Ray, in Portsmouth, Va., Jan. 2, 2014, to discuss the ship’s upcoming mission to destroy chemical weapons from Syria. The Cape May is expected to depart for the mission in about two weeks with 64 specialists from the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center on Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. U.S. Army photo by C. Todd Lopez

The rapid equipping of the Cape Ray for this unorthodox duty was enabled by advance planning that took place even before an official request was made. “There was a recognition that something was going to happen in Syria, in all likelihood that would require us to do something with those chemical materials that were known to be there,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall.

“We could have waited to see what happened and then reacted to that, or we could have moved out ahead of time and then prepared for what might happen or was likely to happen, said Kendall. Fortunately… we took the latter course.”

A  request was made in December 2012 to determine what could be done to destroy Syrian chemical weapons if the U.S. was asked to participate in such a venture. A team serving under the Joint Project Manager for Elimination and the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center had recommended by the end of January 2013 that a hydrolysis process be used. Construction of a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) was started in February and the first prototype was available for use in June. A second mobile system was ready in September. Each FDHS was constructed at a cost of $5 million. “We could have waited to see what happened and then reacted to that, or we could have moved out ahead of time and then prepared for what might happen or was likely to happen, said Kendall. Fortunately… we took the latter course.”

Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems

This tent, inside the M/V Cape Ray, a nearly 650-foot-long ship, contains two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems (FDHS) that are designed to neutralize chemical weapons. Each $5 million system can, depending on the material, process between five to 25 metric tons of material a day. With two systems, that means as much as 50 metric tons a day of chemical warfare agents can be destroyed. The mission requires disposal of 700 metric tons of material. U.S. Army photo by C. Todd Lopez

A hydrolysis system used by the FDHS neutralizes chemical agents by mixing them with a reagent, such as bleach, water, or sodium hydroxide. “It brings the chemical agent together with a reagent, another chemical,” said Rob Malone, with the Joint Project Manger for Elimination at Edgewood. “It creates a chemical reaction that basically destroys the chemical agent in and of itself,” added Malone.

The neutralization process that will used on the Syrian chemical weapons will result in about 1.5 million gallons of toxic effluent. That toxic effluent will also need to be disposed of, but can’t be used as as a chemical weapon.

The neutralization process that will used on the Syrian chemical weapons will result in about 1.5 million gallons of toxic effluent. That toxic effluent will also need to be disposed of, but can’t be used as as a chemical weapon. The effluent is similar to other hazardous compounds that are generated by industrial processes. A commercial market exists for disposing of such waste, so it is likely that the effluent will likely be disposed through that route. The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s Adam Baker envisions that once the disposal of the Syrian chemical weapons is complete, it will have been reduced to a caustic liquid similar to the commercially-available Drano.

Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems

Two of these Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems are now installed on the M/V Cape Ray and ready to dispose of Syrian mustard gas and and “DF compound,” a component of the nerve agent sarin. U.S. Army photo by C. Todd Lopez

A moving ship might seem an odd place to dispose of about 700 metric tons of both mustard gas and “DF compound,” a component of the nerve agent sarin, but the FDHS have been constructed with a built-in redundancy, as well as a titanium-lined reactor. That is where the chemical weapons will be mixed with the neutralizing chemicals.

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

Every two hours, about 130 gallons of mustard gas can be neutralized in each FDHS, meaning that on a typical day, up to 50 metric tons of material can be destroyed. Each FDHS will be operated 24 hours a day. A typical week onboard will consist of six days of disposal, followed by one day of maintenance. Baker doesn’t anticipate starting the first day at full speed. “There is a ramp-up period. It’s going to be a slow start. We’re going to go very deliberately and safely,” said Baker. The Cape Ray will carry the reagents used by the FDHS in 220 6,600-gallon containers. Those containers will also be used to carry the resulting effluent. “Everything will be kind of contained on the ship throughout the entire process,” said Malone.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...