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Libya Chemical Weapons Destruction Costly
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Michael Nguyen

The United States is considering aiding Libya with the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile, but Department of Defense officials are expressing reservations about spending the department’s limited threat reduction funds on a potentially expensive project.

In December 2003, Libya pledged to eliminate all elements of its nuclear and chemical weapons programs and soon thereafter acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits states-parties from developing, producing, or using chemical weaponry. (See ACT, March 2004.) During an initial inspection in March 2004, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the CWC’s implementing body, verified Libya’s declared stockpile of 23 metric tons of mustard gas and more than 1,300 metric tons of precursor chemicals. The CWC requires Libya to destroy both by April 29, 2007, although Libya has requested an extension.

Libya has already destroyed more than 3,500 unfilled aerial munitions and received permission from the OPCW to convert a former chemical weapons facility at Rabta into a pharmaceuticals plant. (See ACT, October 2004.)

James Tegnelia, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), told reporters March 30 that, based on initial estimates, U.S. assistance for destroying the weapons could cost more than $100 million. That would represent a substantial slice of the Defense Department’s budget for implementing the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program to dismantle weapons of mass destruction programs in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. For fiscal year 2007, President George W. Bush has asked Congress to provide $372 million for the program. (See ACT, March 2006.)

By comparison, the United States expects to give Albania about $20 million in assistance over two years to destroy its 16 metric tons of chemical agent. (See ACT, December 2004.)

Peter Flory, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, told Congress April 5 that any destruction project would be “fairly expensive” because the weapons and materials are stored in a remote location in the desert, about 600 kilometers from Tripoli, Libya’s coastal capital. Speaking at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, he said that transporting these weapons would almost certainly be necessary. “Where these things are now does not have any water, and chemical [demilitarization] is a very water-intensive process.” He also noted that temperatures during the day often reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit at the location, which was not disclosed for security reasons.

The choice of destruction method and the issue of transporting the chemical agent to a more suitable location will have an effect on the final costs. A joint team of officials from DTRA and the Department of State has visited Libya and is in the process of drafting a report on possible options.

Given the technical challenges, both Tegnelia and Flory expressed reservations about using limited CTR funds for this project, especially given the other projects competing for funding, particular in the former Soviet Union. “We have to consider what are the opportunity costs of doing that particular bit of work,” said Flory, who also stated that any decision should carefully consider the conditions of the munitions, their proliferation risks, and the technical challenges.

“In the end, meeting the Chemical Weapons Convention responsibility is the Libyan government’s responsibility,” Tegnelia added.

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who chaired the April 5 hearing, said, “It would seem that the Cooperative Threat Reduction program is the most logical candidate” to bear the costs of the destruction. Cornyn said that Congress in December 2003 authorized the use of CTR funds outside of the former Soviet Union “with the specific example of Libya in mind.”