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Why Destroying Syria's Weapons May Be Tough, Despite Today's Deadline

The process of cataloging and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile took another stride Sunday, as the country met a deadline for submitting a formal declaration of its chemical arsenal. Weapons experts must also complete their inspection of all 23 storage and production sites today.

As of Friday, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had visited 19 of the weapons sites, the BBC reports. A framework agreed upon by Russia and the U.S. calls for all of Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed the middle of 2014.

The declaration by Syria "includes a general plan of destruction" of its holdings, the OPCW says. But the process of destroying the weapons is sure to be a complicated one, experts say.

"What is known publicly is that Syria has about 1,000 tons of chemical-weapons-related material," according to NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. "And we think most of that isn't actually chemical weapons — it's chemicals used to make chemical weapons."

As Geoff tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin, inspectors may need to take some of the weapons outside of Syria, where a civil war is still raging, in order to destroy the materials safely. And that may be tough to do — Norway recently rejected the idea of taking on the destruction.

Geoff details how the process works — and why it's so tricky. Here's some of his conversation with Rachel:

Geoff: "The good news about these precursor chemicals is that they're a lot less dangerous than chemical weapons themselves. For example, the nerve gas sarin is usually made of two chemicals, and one of which is actually a kind of alcohol that's used in all sorts of industrial processes.

"That alcohol could be pretty easy to dispose of. And one expert I spoke to thought it could even be sold... to help pay for the disposal of the other stuff.

"The other part of sarin is a lot nastier, and there are ways to get rid of it. One of them is hydrolysis. Basically, it involves mixing the chemical with a lot of hot water and other chemicals to break it down. And then you can incinerate those byproducts.

"It's a similar story for mustard gas and VX nerve gas — the two other agents that Syria is thought to have."

Rachel: Is that something that can take place inside of Syria?

Geoff: "Incineration and hydrolysis aren't all that complicated, but you do need a lot of infrastructure. To burn the chemicals, you need an incinerator with protections in place to keep it from leaking out into the environment; hydrolysis requires a lot of electricity and water.

"But Syria is a war zone. So obviously, you can't go taking the time to build these big, complicated operations.

Rachel: Are there chemical weapons that are already loaded into Syrian bombs and rockets? How do you dispose of those?

Geoff: "Finding them, hopefully, won't be a problem, because the Syrians are supposed to disclose all of their chemical stocks, and that includes munitions that are loaded.

"In terms of disposal, though, this is a real issue. Loaded munitions are fragile; they cannot be moved very easily, and they probably can't be taken out of Syria. So, anything that's already been loaded is going to have to be disposed of in the country — and that's going to be probably the most dangerous and difficult part of this entire process."

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