GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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September 20, 2013

Rockets in Ky. show destroying nerve gas arms not easy

Weapons armed with the same nerve gas used on Syrian citizens last month sit in grass-topped concrete bunkers at an Army depot in Kentucky, 20 years after the U.S. government promised to destroy them.

The bunkers, in a field at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, house rockets and other artillery holding 523 tons of the nerve agents VX and sarin in addition to flesh-blistering mustard gas. A partnership including San Francisco-based Bechtel National Inc. is building a plant to destroy them. It will open seven years from now and will dispose of the last weapon there three years later.

This week, as international monitors learn the size and makeup of the chemical weapons stockpile Syria has pledged to destroy by next year, the Blue Grass stash stands as a warning: Safe destruction of chemical weapons isn't easy.

Syria's promised pace would be ambitious even in a country without a civil war, said Michael Kuhlman, chief scientist for national security at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio which is working on the Blue Grass project 30 miles south of Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky.

"I found the time frame for Syria surprising," Kuhlman said in an interview. 'They are presumably starting from scratch in terms of destruction capability and the security situation there certainly isn't going to expedite matters.''

Syrian President Bashar Assad affirmed his intentions in a Sept. 18 televised interview with Fox News. He said he would dispose of the weapons in about a year, with the guidance of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, Netherlands. The group enforces the international chemical weapons treaty that Syria joined last week. The United States joined the accord in 1993.

Assad said he understood the destruction process is complicated and he's been told it will cost about $1 billion.

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