PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — A 648-foot government cargo ship with a labyrinth of tubes and valves in its hold should sail within two weeks to destroy some of Syria's chemical weapons, officials said Thursday.
The cavernous cargo hold of the MV Cape Ray was opened for media tours by the Defense Department to display the two massive treatment units that will neutralize 700 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and a form of sarin nerve gas. Called field deployable hydrolysis systems, the technology has never been tested under conditions at sea.
"This is essentially the same chemical process we have used to destroy our own materials," said Frank Kendall, an undersecretary of defense. "There's no mystery about the process."
Kendall declined to discuss Syria's role in giving up the chemicals or aspects of the mission ahead for the Cape Ray, which is part of the U.S. reserve fleet typically used in international and national disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy.
Two chemical engineers who have worked on the sea-bound systems said they have added backup systems and redundancies to ensure the systems work in their new environment.
Capt. Rick Jordan, a 40-year veteran of the seas, said he has hand-picked the best crew of 35 he could find for the mission, which is expected to take three months. He said he has not been told his ultimate port, but the voyage should take about 10 days.
"We've got some really good folks on here," said Jordan, a New Orleans native. The Navy will provide security at sea and additional security will be onboard the Cape Ray.
Jordan didn't hesitate to name his greatest concern during the voyage and its unprecedented mission: rough seas.
"Weather is the single most important factor a mariner has to consider," he said. "Far and away, weather is our single biggest obstacle on this trip."
The stout Cape Ray, called a "roro' because cargo is rolled on and off, is berthed along the Elizabeth River in the center of Virginia's maritime industry. The city's skyline could be seen against a slate-gray sky across the river.
The ship, owned by the Maritime Administration, will be turned over to the Navy's Sealift command once it leaves Virginia.
The two chemical-eating systems are bolted in the center of the cargo hold and covered by a thick tent of white plastic, which will remain closed during the processing of the chemicals. Carbon filters will scrub air vented from the enclosures.
The system uses water and a chemical cocktail to break down the toxic weapons in a titanium reactor. The waste product, which scientists compared to drain cleaner, will be destroyed at undisclosed chemical sites.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, in which the U.S. government said 1,400 people died, prompted a U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the disposal mission will be the transportation of the chemicals from 12 storage sites in Syria to the port of Latakia. Officials Thursday declined to discuss those land operations, deferring to Syrian officials.
Russian trucks that will be used to transport the chemicals to Latakia are now arriving in Syria. The shipments will be monitored through GPS locators provided by the U.S. as well as surveillance cameras provided by the Chinese.
The most highly toxic chemicals will be dealt with first. They will be transferred from the trucks onto Danish and Norwegian cargo ships, which will carry the cargo to an Italian port, where it will be loaded onto the Cape Ray.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has warned that there may be delays, including possible heavy fighting near a major highway linking Damascus and the city of Homs.
Jordan was asked if he any problems fielding a crew because of the possible risks of the mission.
No, he said, "once I got the word out to the people I know. This is a legacy trip."
Associated Press writher Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.