By David Alexander
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - The U.S.-owned cargo ship with the capability to destroy the nastiest of Syria's chemical weapons will depart for the Mediterranean in about two weeks, officials said on Thursday as shipyard workers readied the vessel for new sea trials.
Forklifts moved equipment and sparks flew as workers welded containers and other gear on the deck of the MV Cape Ray, which is being outfitted with modular housing to accommodate three times its normal complement of personnel, plus two hydrolysis units for destroying Syrian chemicals used in mustard and nerve gas weapons.
"Without this ship, this mission is not possible," top Pentagon arms buyer Frank Kendall, who has oversight of chemical, biological and nuclear arms, told reporters who were invited to tour the vessel at dock in Portsmouth, Virginia.
"This avoids having to put these materials on somebody's territory, where you have to deal with all the political and environmental conditions associated with doing that under local law," he said.
Damascus agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons last year in the face of threatened U.S. military action following a Syrian chemical attack against rebels and their supporters in a civil war aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States had developed a portable machine for destroying chemical weapons precursors and offered to neutralize the portion of Syria's agents that were too toxic to be dealt with directly by companies that process hazardous materials.
Syria failed to meet the December 31 deadline for removing the chemical agents, but officials have noted that the time frame was always going to be challenging and arms control experts say deliberate and safe handling of the materials is more important than doing it speedily.
"This operation is difficult but it's do-able," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "It's safe and it should be done carefully, and that's more important than doing it quickly."
Kendall said the Cape Ray, which is part of the Maritime Administration's Reserve Ready Fleet of cargo ships is expected to leave for the Mediterranean "within about two weeks."
Security concerns and bureaucracy have caused Assad's government to miss Tuesday's deadline for the removal of deadly toxins from Syria. Bad weather and a complex multinational procurement effort for equipment are among other reasons given for the delay.
The United States is not overly concerned about the delay.
"If you think six months ago they didn't even admit they had chemical weapons, now we have a massive international effort to destroy them and we've seen progress," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "I think we're getting there."
The chemical weapons will be taken from the Syrian port of Latakia to a port in Italy where they will be loaded onto the Cape Ray and destroyed in international waters.
Rick Jordan, the Cape Ray's civilian captain, said the ship had undergone sea trials last week to prove it was ready for the voyage after a period of inactivity. Additional sea trials are planned for next week to test the hydrolysis system while under way and to train the crew for possible emergencies.
"We have not tested this on board yet," he said, motioning to arched tents on the Cape Ray's lower deck where two Defense Department Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems have been installed.
The ship is expecting to destroy about 700 tons of chemical weapons precursor agents, Kendall said. The actual work could probably be done in 45 days under ideal conditions, but the mission is expected to last about 90 days because work will be suspended in bad weather, he said.
The hydrolysis process uses water and other reagents like sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite to neutralize bulk amounts of chemical warfare agents, according to the Defense Department's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
The chemically altered agents can then be processed by commercial firms that deal with hazardous waste. Officials said the 700 tons of chemicals, when run through the hydrolysis system, would produce 1.5 million gallons of effluents to be processed by hazardous waste firms.
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Gunna Dickson)