By Missy Ryan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will conduct a sea test this month of equipment that could be used to neutralize Syria's most deadly chemical weapons at sea, U.S. defense officials said on Thursday.
Two large chemical neutralization units, which employ a process known as hydrolysis to render toxic chemicals safe enough to be disposed of at commercial sites, are being installed below deck on the Cape Ray, a U.S. Merchant Marine ship.
"This is a proven technology," a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters at the Pentagon. "The chemicals and their reactions are very well understood."
The hydrolysis technology, which turns dangerous chemicals into a low-toxicity liquid waste, has been used to destroy other hazardous materials in the United States. But if the initiative moves forward, it would be the first time the system is used to destroy such materials at sea.
A sea trial of the equipment aboard the Cape Ray is planned for later this month, Pentagon officials said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, is overseeing plans to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal under an agreement that averted U.S. missile strikes earlier this year.
But arranging for hundreds of tons of toxic chemicals to be safely transported to war-torn Syria's northern port of Latakia, and then stored or destroyed elsewhere, has proven difficult.
A second U.S. defense official said that the Syrian government was "taking the process very seriously."
"They recognize that they bear a lot of responsibility for getting the materials safely delivered," the official said. "Obviously it's a challenging environment and they're working through that."
Earlier on Wednesday, the head of the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW said that the mission was awaiting approval from an unidentified country to use one of that country's ports to load Syrian chemical weapons onto a U.S. ship for destruction.
Italy, Norway and Denmark have offered to transport Syria's chemicals from Latakia with military escorts. The chemicals would then be transferred to the Cape Ray at another port. The plan has yet to be formally approved by the OPCW, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S. official said stockpiles that would be destroyed at sea would include mustard gas and materials used to make the nerve agent sarin. The destruction would take between 45 and 90 days.
The ship, which could be ready within weeks, will be manned by about 100 people, including Pentagon employees and contractors, who will use protective equipment when treating the chemicals.
"Our assessment is that the risks from the neutralization operations are very low," the first official said.
It's not yet clear where the Cape Ray would pick up the Syrian chemicals, or where the offshore destruction would take place. The U.S. official said that none of the liquid created by the hydrolysis process would be dumped at sea but would be stored at an undetermined location.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)