For two decades, the U.S. military has been mired by myriad problems and delays in developing a safe way to destroy its aging chemical arms - 42 percent of which are stored at Utah's Tooele Army Depot.
But the United Nations official in charge of destroying Iraq's newly discovered 46,000 chemical munitions said Monday he expects to finish that job "by 1993, maybe the end of 1992 at the earliest" - a phenomenally fast rate for a huge stockpile.But, of course, he acknowledges the United Nations is not as concerned as the United States is about using all resources available to ensure safety of civilians. The United Nations is more interested in destroying the arms quickly to ensure Saddam Hussein cannot use them as a continued threat.
Rolf Ekeus, a Swede who is executive director of the U.N. Special Commission to Monitor Iraq's Disarmament, told a conference of national reporters and editors that the United Nations found Iraq has 46,000 munitions filled with nerve or mustard gas "and many thousands more" that were yet to be filled.
Exactly how that compares with the size of the U.S. stockpile is unknown. Its size is classified, and the military will not make even general comparisons between it and the Iraqi stockpile, said Maj. Rick Thomas, a Pentagon spokesman.
Ekeus said the size of the Iraqi stockpile was discovered by searching Iraqi records, obtaining records of supplies sales from other countries and inspecting suspected production and storage sites. "We are confident we have found most of them," he said.
In response to a Deseret News question, he acknowledged that because of the "special peril of Iraqi chemical weapons, we cannot follow established protocols" in destroying them on his fastschedule, suggesting the United Nations may sacrifice some safety of workers and civilians to destroy the arms quickly and cheaply.
He said the U.S. method of chemical arms destruction - which is generally considered the world's most advanced, despite its unresolved bugs - requires too much high-tech machinery and plants, is too expensive and would take years to implement in Iraq.
For example, the total estimated cost of destroying chemical arms at Tooele is a whopping $897 million, including more than $100 million for an arms destruction plant under construction there.
That Tooele plant will use automated machinery to punch holes in munitions, drain them of chemicals and burn the parts in different furnaces that are specially shielded to protect against accidental explosions and release of nerve gas.
Ekeus said he also rejected a Soviet method of arms destruction - which uses small, portable machines to punch and drain munitions where they are stored - because it appeared "it couldn't handle the capacity" of Iraqi arms.
He said, however, the United Nations did find a Canadian machine it plans to use to destroy arms filled with mustard agent - but it cannot be used on much more deadly nerve agent.
"So we had to find another source for a solution. We are designing a new method ourselves," Ekeus said. He added the United Nations is consulting with chemical weapons specialists from the United States, Soviet Union, Canada, Great Britain and numerous other European countries to develop it.
He added the United Nations is also working closely with Iraq on the details, which could affect its civilians.
Ekeus said a general destruction plan has been devised, although he did not elaborate on exactly how it works or what trade-offs on safety were made for speed and economy.
"We plan to test to our theoretical research to see how well it works," he said. Ekeus added that "several thousand" Iraqi chemical arms have already been destroyed by U.N. teams.
The U.N. is also not hindered by U.S. military program requirements that brought years of environmental impact study, public hearings, tests and negotiations with local governments.
The U.S. job is now expected to be completed by the end of the decade - after deadlines were pushed back several times through the years. But the first full-scale plant at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific is still suffering numerous bugs. And an earlier, small pilot plant at Tooele suffered eight accidents that released nerve agent to the atmosphere.
"We worry about the environment, but also health and especially the public safety," Ekeus said. "You also have to look at it in a political context," he said about the threat of Saddam using the weapons.