A boatload of risks in the Mediterranean – The experiment on the ”’boat – bomb” Cape Ray

The destruction of the chemical weapons’ arsenal of Syria is a good thing. It becomes, though, a nightmare when such an operation takes place, for the first time, on an old boat, in the Mediterranean on a mission surrounded by a veil of secrecy. As a matter of fact it’s an ”experiment” with many risks for the environment. The German expert in chemical and biological weapons, Ralf Trapp, analyzes one by one these toxic risks.



Greek Newspaper ”Eleftherotypia”, Sunday Magazine E, 23.2.2014 –

Interview by Spyros Chatzigiannis

The toxic mission for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons on a boat at the Mediterranean sea has spread tons of toxic and not so toxic worries to the nearby residents of the basin. Including the citizens of Crete because on the waters of its sea, at the west of the biggest Greek island, the chemicals of the Syrians will be destroyed on the altar of world peace. The veil of secrecy that covers the face of this mission arouses, justifiably, as we would see, the fantasy as much as the scientific reality, which like the unpredictable waves of the Mediterranean shake in an equally unpredictable manner the …vessel of the global and the Greek public opinion.

We spoke with the German expert on chemical weapons and technical consultant of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon ( OPCW) the 61 year old Ralf Trapp, for the multiple faces of a story that reveals environmental, bureaucratic, legal, practical and historical elements of our geopolitical reality that has already been polluted by the humanity’s arsenals of chemical weapons. What is certain, though, is that the virgin appearance on a boat of the American portable unit for the destruction of chemical weapons will cause mini storms in the Mediterranean states. Providing inspiration, at the same time, for toxic rhymes to the talented Cretan orators and their four – verses oral tradition of freestyle ‘’mantinades’’.



1) Why did the international authorities, especially the Americans and the Russians, decide to destroy the chemicals of Syria in the Mediterranean sea and not on land as it was the case until nowadays in similar missions?

The initial decision was not to do the destruction of the chemicals in Syria itself for security reasons. They were planning to bring the weapons out of the country as quickly as possible and then trying to find a way of destroying them abroad and on land. The next problem that then occurred was that the Americans had the technology, had the facilities, the transport facilities that they could employ into the field, but, they needed a place to put it. A number of countries were approached as possible hosts and they thought about this operation but a lot of them were not in a position to take the responsibility for this operation. So, in the end, they were running out of time and options and then it was decided to bring this deployable destruction facility on a ship rather than find a place on land.


2) America and Russia are the only countries in the world which have the experience, the technical expertise and the appropriate facilities on their land for the destruction of such chemical agents/weapons. Why did they decide then to destroy Syria’s chemicals in the Mediterranean and not on the land of one of the two countries?

That’s correct, Russia and the United States are the only countries which have at this point and time large scale destruction operations of chemical weapons. But both of them, I mean letting aside the logistics of just getting the material from Syria to the Mediterranean and then either to Russia, or, to the United States (a process that entails in itself a lot of risks) in both cases you have other problems: On the one hand Russia is fairly delayed with its own program for the destruction of its chemical weapons. On the other hand the US have legislation that basically prohibits the import into the US of chemical weapons. Finally, countries like Belgium, or, the UK, or like Germany, which in the past have dealt with old chemical weapons, they have the legal framework and some of them also have facilities for the destruction of chemical weapons, but, these are smaller and they don’t have the capacity that we would need in order to destroy the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. And, again, for a number of reasons, no one of these countries was in a position to host the American deployable facility.


3) Hydrolysis is going to be the method through which the mobile unit FDHS (Field Deployable Hydrolysis System ) of the Americans will destroy the Syrian chemicals aboard the boat Cape Ray. Was it a random thing the fact that they didn’t use a method like the incineration of the chemical agents?

I don’t know why they decided to use hydrolysis. Both technologies are perfectly proven and there’s a lot of experience both with regard to incineration and with regard to hydrolysis. Both of them have been used in the past by the Americans, but, also, by other countries.

So, the choice was probably additionally determined by factors such as the availability of equipment. Actually, at least one of the reactors they’re using, has been acquired in the past after September 11th as a part of a program for preparing for possible terrorist attacks with toxic materials in the US. The advantage of using hydrolysis on a boat instead of incineration is that in the second case you’re having a high furnace which is more than 1000 Celsius degrees and so if things go wrong you are basically on a boat with a very, very hot element. Whereas if you’re doing it by hydrolysis you would get temperatures close to boiling point of the liquid but it’s a very easy to control process.But let me repeat: the choice for hydrolysis was not made with this boat in mind. I think when people decided about developing a field deployable system there was no idea that this would happen on a boat. The idea was then that it would happen on land.




4) Do you think that countries which, in the past, sold chemical weapons to Syria must also bear responsibility for the destruction of them in 2014?

I don’t think that we know enough at the moment to be sure exactly how the Syrian chemical weapons program was supplied. We know there’s been technical cooperation between Syria and Russia in the past in the 1980s but I don’t think that we know enough at the moment to be sure exactly how the Syrian chemical weapons program was supplied.

Now I know that countries like Germany and other European countries have sold in the past chemicals like sodium chloride and other chemicals to Syria and some of these chemicals are needed in the chemical weapons program. But they are also used to make toothpaste! And other types of normal consumer goods. So you can understand the complex nature of the issue…


5) Were there any other reasons that made the Mediterranean the ideal solution for the disappearance of Syria’s chemical weapons from planet Earth?

First of all if something goes wrong on the sea, that will take place at least 200 kms from the coast and from populated areas. If we were on land the effects of such an accident would have been more immediate. Then, the sea environment is free of the legal problems that we would have on the land of a country. What do I mean? In the Mediterranean you don’t have to deal with licenses needed for such an operation, with the laws/legislation that someone has to follow. All of these things disappear on international waters. Your ‘’hands’’ are not tied by the legislation of a nation. Thus, it is much easier and much faster to manage such a process on international waters.


6) It has been announced that the whole process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons on Cape Ray will take between 45 and 90 days. How do you comment on this timetable regarding the quantities of chemical agents that need to be destroyed and the sea environment on which it will take place?

If they would operate the facility at full force from day one they could be done in twelve days.

So things have to be moved around and repositioned and secured again and then reconnected with pipes.

You have problems with moving containers around in the ship because you need to attach different containers if you go through the process you empty the first lot of containers into the facility, destroy them and then they need to be moved away and then others need to be moved in, so there will be movement of containers on the boat and you’re moving containers that contain toxic material.

So that is obviously something that you need to be prepared for.

The positive thing is that we don’t have chemical weapons to process like rockets, but, just the chemical agents themselves.

We do not have the problem of having to separate explosives from the toxic agents. It’s much simpler and actually the most risky and also the slowest step in a normal process of destroying chemical weapons is that first step. You take the weapons into the facility and then you open up the weapons and separate the agents from the explosives. That’s where things can go wrong.

The real problem that I see is the working environment itself. At the sea. You are on a boat, you operate in a pretty compact environment which is good, but, at the same time also if things go wrong you are at sea and you know things are moving and it’s not the same as if you are standing on land.

So there are really restrictions in terms of in which weather or at which sea roughness they can still work. And they may have to stop working to make sure that they can control the process and they don’t run out of control.



7) Nevertheless, it’s still a problem and a source of toxic risks the presence of hundreds of tons of dangerous chemicals like mustard gas, or, sarin gas, on a boat like Cape Ray, which unlike most modern tankers, has a single and not a double hull, something that was mentioned in a press release of the French environmental NGO Robin De Bois. In that sense what are the risks for the Mediterranean and for the people who live on its coasts?

First of all the problem you would have is of course the amount of materials. If the ship would be sinking we know at the moment that there would be somewhere in the order of 500 – 600 tons of chemicals stored. These chemicals are in containers and in such a scenario the question is whether they would stay intact inside these containers, or, if there would be corrosion on the containers that would cause them to break. Or if there are risks of having instant release of some of this material into the sea.

If you get a release of this material into the sea it’s simply a matter of how much. Some of these chemicals when they come in touch with the water they would get dissolved as they are fairly quickly hydrolyzed.

But the problem with things like mustard gas is that it can actually stay stable without actually dissolving in the body of water. It can stay there for long periods of time and you have an active chemical agent sitting there down on the ground and eventually it would be mixed up and will definitely have a local impact on the sea environment.

It can also be washed further away with currents and things like that.

In the First World war they have thrown barrels with chemicals in places like the Baltic Sea. There, because the water has cold temperatures, chemicals like mustard gas stay fairly solid without actually dissolving in the body of water. In the warmer waters of the Mediterranean it will dissolve more easily but it would also have an impact on the aquatic environment. In an area that is contaminated with mustard gas you would have effects on the aquatic environment. In case of a spill of toxic materials the Mediterranean would be more vulnerable than the Atlantic. Because it’s a closed system, there is limited water exchange with the open seas. So a spill of toxic chemicals in the Mediterranean would definitely have an environmental effect, no question about that.



8) Greek politicians like the European MP Mr Kriton Arsenis and the governor of Crete Mr Stavros Arnaoutakis have heavily criticized the Greek government and the Greek foreign minister Mr Venizelos for their handling of Cape Ray’s mission that make the operation sail into dark waters. At the same time, you and other experts of chemical weapons sent an open letter to John Kerry asking for more transparency regarding this large and controversial operation. How do you comment on the above and if you were a Cretan citizen would you be worried about the mission of Cape Ray in the Mediterranean waters near Crete?

As far as I know after the processing of the chemicals through hydrolysis, nothing will be thrown into the sea. The by-products of the operation would be stored and would be send to two plants that are processing chemical agents. One company that perhaps it’s going to participate is the German GEKA, based in Munster, which is controlled by the German federal government and which is a company that still destroys chemical weapons from the First World War.

I mean if you look back at the American program and the Russian program and you look back at other countries every time you got significant delays at these programs. Unless you talk to the people of areas like Crete, unless you explain to them what the problems are, how are you going to deal with them, what the risks are that are involved in the process, what the precautionary measures are that you are taking to manage these risks and to protect the people and the environment, unless you you’re doing that and explaining to them and also respond to questions and concerns and anxieties you actually end up in situation where initially you have secrecy and then you got this situation where you would not be able do certain things simply because the local population doesn’t support it. And you can only do these things with the support of people who live nearby.

So, my criticism is that we haven’t talked to the people who live in the area close by and who are potentially affected by it. They worry about the environmental effects at their sea. I think that we have to give them some explanations. We still don’t know where this operation would take place. Perhaps for security reasons, but, at some point we have to talk openly about this matter.


9) You have pointed out in some of your articles that the number one risk in such an operation is the process of transporting these chemicals. Nevertheless, if the destruction of Syria’s chemicals was taking place on land, in the same portable unit, in a place like Sicily which is in the same distance from Syria like the current area of the Mediterannean where Cape Ray is going to be, in that case would you feel safer regarding the risks about such an operation?

I think that it would be a preferred option yes. Yes, of course you have much more control if you do that on land. The initial plan was to do it on land except it turned out they couldn’t do it!


The German expert on chemical weapons, Ralf Trapp.

10) Do you think that a successful destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons would be a symbolic gesture for the complete destruction of the chemical weapons’ arsenal on our planet?

I think so. If its successful, and I believe that they’re going to reach the deadline for June, then that would be important: It will show that the convention for the chemical weapons can function under extreme conditions. And it would also exert extra pressure to countries like North Korea which haven’t signed this convention.


11) Will the chemical weapons be a distant and toxic reminiscence for humanity in 50 years time?

I hope that it’s going to be a little less than 50 years! I mean a few years ago people would have said that Libya would never join the chemical weapons convention. Well they have and they have actually eliminated them. About a year ago nobody would have guessed that Syria would join. So they have joined and here we are. And in the next ten years we will get rid of the Russian and the American stockpiles of chemical weapons. So it would be possible to reach this chemical weapons free world status within our own generation. I am an optimist.


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