As Danish and Norwegian naval vessels ready to head for Syrian waters on Friday to escort a delayed shipment of chemical weapons for destruction, a U.S. ship has also been prepared to sail within two weeks to take aboard and neutralize the toxic arms.
A year-end deadline was reached through a U.N. Security Council-backed deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
The breakthrough deal set the deadline to remove Syria’s key chemical weapons while it aims to fully dismantle the stock by the middle of 2014.
Norwegian armed forces spokesman Lars Hovtun said the Nordic vessels will weigh anchor from the nearby island of Cyprus, where they headed to port on Monday when it became clear that a year-end deadline for the shipment would be missed.
“We don’t know but what we know is that we are ready for the task and, if called upon, we are ready to be at short notice,” Agence France-Presse quoted Danish task group commander, Commodore Torben Mikkelsen, as saying in a video interview released by the spokesman.
Mikkelsen said that no new date had been set for the shipment but that the vessels would hold their position outside Syrian territorial waters awaiting orders.
When the operation gets underway, the ships are to be joined by Chinese and Russian vessels inside Syrian waters under a plan agreed in Moscow on Friday.
Syria’s worsening civil war, logistical problems and bad weather had held up the operation to move chemical agents to the port of Latakia, said the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission overseeing the operation.
Under the plan, the chemicals will be taken from Latakia to a port in Italy where they will be transhipped to a U.S. Navy vessel specially fitted with equipment to destroy them at sea.
U.S. ship being readied
To destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, a 197.5-meter U.S. cargo ship with a labyrinth of tubes and valves in its hold should sail within two weeks, officials said Thursday.
MV Cape Ray was opened for media tours by the Defense Department to display the two massive treatment units that will neutralize 700 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and a form of sarin nerve gas. Called field deployable hydrolysis systems, the technology has never been tested under conditions at sea.
“This is essentially the same chemical process we have used to destroy our own materials,” the Associated Press quoted Frank Kendall, an undersecretary of defense, as saying.
Kendall added: “There’s no mystery about the process.”
However, Kendall declined to discuss Syria’s role in giving up the chemicals or aspects of the mission ahead for the Cape Ray, which is part of the U.S. reserve fleet typically used in international and national disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy.
Two chemical engineers who have worked on the sea-bound systems said they have added backup systems and redundancies to ensure the systems work in their new environment.
Capt. Rick Jordan, 40, said he has hand-picked the best crew of 35 he could find for the mission, which is expected to take three months. He said he has not been told his ultimate port, but the voyage should take about 10 days.
“We’ve got some really good folks on here,” Jordan, a New Orleans native, told the Associated Press. The Navy will provide security at sea and additional security will be onboard the Cape Ray.
Jordan didn’t shy away from expressing his concern regarding the voyage and his unprecedented mission: rough seas.
“Weather is the single most important factor a mariner has to consider,” he said. “Far and away, weather is our single biggest obstacle on this trip.”
More about the ship
The stout Cape Ray, called a “roro” because cargo is rolled on and off, is berthed along the Elizabeth River in the center of Virginia’s maritime industry.
The ship, owned by the Maritime Administration, will be turned over to the Navy’s Sealift command once it leaves Virginia.
The two chemical-eating systems are bolted in the center of the cargo hold and covered by a thick tent of white plastic, which will remain closed during the processing of the chemicals. Carbon filters will scrub air vented from the enclosures.
The system uses water and a chemical cocktail to break down the toxic weapons in a titanium reactor. The waste product, which scientists compared to drain cleaner, will be destroyed at undisclosed chemical sites.
The ship is designed to absorb rough seas but “if it becomes unmanageable, we’ll have to shut down production,” AFP quoted Jordan as saying.
He added: “And we’re going to make sure that we dispose of the materials that we have to handle in a very safe manner and we take care of both the people that are involved, people that might be affected, and the environment.”
(With AFP and Associated Press)