By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of the creators of the program that has helped Russia dismantle its weapons of mass destruction says the mechanics of destroying Syria's chemical weapons may be easier and quicker than some officials and experts think.
Former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, who helped establish a post-Cold War program to secure and decommission Soviet-era stockpiles of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, says the United States has recently developed a prototype for a mobile system that can eradicate chemical warfare agents on site.
"We have developed equipment that can go out into the field on fairly short order, set up, and it can move its way through from five to 25 tons of chemical substance a day," Lugar told Reuters.
"These people talking about the fact that this (destruction of Syria's chemical weapons) might take months, years, just obviously are not aware" of the new U.S. equipment, Lugar said.
Russia proposed earlier this week that Washington and Moscow should collaborate to destroy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons. President Barack Obama put on hold plans for U.S. military strikes in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians August 21.
In addition to the technical challenges of dismantling Syria's chemical arms, there are plenty of political and military obstacles. It is unclear if the United States will accept Russia's plan and hold off on attacking Syria, and the civil war raging there is another big hurdle to decommissioning chemical weapons.
While Moscow's overture on Syria's chemical weapons was something of a surprise, it was not a totally new idea. Lugar, a veteran disarmament campaigner, first suggested more than a year ago that the United States and Russia work together to secure Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.
Lugar made the proposal during a trip to Moscow in August 2012, while he was still a senator and working on an extension of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that helped secure "loose nukes" and dismantle chemical weapons in the former Soviet Union.
Lugar had not cleared the idea with the Obama administration in advance and the initial response from the Russians was cool. But he said Friday he is pleased to see the scenario being seriously examined now, despite all the challenges, and was glad that Syria had responded positively as well.
TRANSPORTABLE CHEMICAL WEAPONS DESTROYERS
Weapons experts believe Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical weapons spread across some 50 sites. The United States had 30 times that amount, and Russia 40 times as much, before they began destroying their stockpiles under the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which went into effect in 1997.
The new U.S. prototype for destroying chemical weapons that Lugar mentioned is called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, the Pentagon said. It is transportable, so it can get rid of chemical weapons on site. The chemical weapons do not have to be moved, which is a dangerous prospect anywhere, especially during war.
The system does not destroy chemical weapons in bulk, so it could not be used for materials that have been placed inside munitions - a trickier process. It is not known how much of Syria's stockpile is already inside munitions.
The new system converts the chemical warfare agents into compounds not useable as weapons, a Pentagon spokeswoman said. She said it was built to destroy bulk chemical agents "wherever they are found," but added that there were no current plans to use the new system in Syria.
The system was designed and built by staff at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center.
Lugar, who served more than three decades in the Senate, traveled to Russia many times as part of the Nunn-Lugar program established with former Senator Sam Nunn in the 1990s. The program was extended earlier this year, although it was pared back, with Russia assuming the costs and completing some tasks without U.S. help.
On one trip to Russia in 2005 Republican Lugar took along Obama, who was a new Democratic senator at the time. Lugar said Obama got excited about seeing dangerous warfare agents first hand.
"We went into a laboratory in which there was ... deadly material," Lugar said. "I wouldn't know whether to characterize it as a chemical weapon or a biological weapon, just locked up in the iceboxes as they used to do there. And I can remember vividly that Barack was fascinated by this."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)