GLOBAL SECURITY NEWSWIRE. AUGUST 13, 2010. By Rachel Oswald
WASHINGTON -- As the world’s declared state stockpiles of chemical warfare materials dwindle, the nonproliferation community is turning its focus to another concern -- a multitude of commercial plants that could be converted to produce weapon agents (see GSN April 10, 2008).
These industry sites are formally known as Other Chemical Production Facilities and they are spread in the thousands around the world.
While they are under the watch of an international arms control organization, some issue experts fear that the existing monitoring regime -- premised largely on industry self-reporting -- is not sufficiently stringent to guard against the possibility, however remote, of facilities clandestinely being turned toward illicit activities.
“The big issue under nonproliferation is that many of these chemicals are dual-use and many commercial facilities around the globe potentially could have some deadly breakout potential,” said Paul Walker, security and sustainability chief for the environmental organization Global Green USA.
Other Chemical Production Facilities produce materials that are not listed under any of three Chemical Weapons Convention schedules of toxic materials and precursor substances. Between 10 and 15 percent of these plants could be quickly converted to illicit operations, according to France-based issue expert Ralf Trapp.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors member nations’ compliance with the convention, to date has not uncovered production of warfare materials at any of these “other” facilities. However, there are more than 4,470 known OCPF sites worldwide and only 579 have been inspected.
Some 80 member countries have such plants, though nations that remain outside the convention also have facilities that would fall under the classification, Trapp said. The pact requires OCPF sites to provide annual declarations of the type and quantity of substances they produce to the national authority that acts as a government’s liaison to the organization in The Hague, Netherlands.
While these plants are judged to represent a much smaller public health threat than facilities that produce scheduled chemicals – which are all designated as posing varying levels of danger to the nonproliferation regime -- the technological processes employed by OCPF locations could lend themselves to diversion. Chlorination, for instance, can be used to produce herbicides and insecticides but also the nerve agents sarin and VX as well as mustard blister agent. Likewise, fluorination can produce solvents, pharmaceuticals and sarin.
The number of OCPF plants is also between four times and five times as great as the count of facilities that manufacture schedule chemicals.
Trapp said the “other” facilities with the greatest potential for chemical-weapon production are those with multipurpose engineering and technology. “These are the things that may make ordinary chemicals but because of their technology and equipment could be turned around to make something [else] rather quickly” -- possibly in a matter of hours or a day or two, he said.
“In my opinion, there is a need not only to continue to inspect the Schedule 1, 2, and 3 facilities, in accordance with the convention, but also to extend and deepen the verification of relevant plants in the Other Chemical Production Facilities category, a good number of which could quickly be reconverted for the production of prohibited chemicals and used by terrorists,” Rogelio Pfirter, who led the Chemical Weapons Convention organization for eight years, said in a June farewell address.
Facilities that produce more than 200 metric tons of material annually meet the threshold for inspection. There are now 4,390 such operations, the vast majority of OCPF facilities.
Inspections of these sites are aimed at creating an “equitable geographic distribution” among CWC states parties to ensure all meet their treaty obligations, according to a 2009 report by issue expert Robert Mathews of the Australian Defense Science and Technology Organization.
However, there has been a general industry-wide shift in recent years toward locating new chemical production plants in the developing world, according to Trapp.
The United States and other Western nations believe OCPF site monitoring should seek to keep up with that trend, while China, India and other countries resist measures that would place a higher burden on their growing chemical sectors, experts said.
“Countries like Pakistan say that the industry facilities of greatest concern are those that produce scheduled chemicals … so why does the United States want to shift attention to facilities that produce harmless chemicals,” said Jonathan Tucker, a chemical weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “There is a North/ South divide on this issue and the diplomatic challenge will be to find a formula that can bridge that gap.”
Michael Luhan, OPCW spokesman, said by e-mail the monitoring body does not release data on the number of Other Chemical Production Facility sites by country, though he allowed that “certainly both China and India have seen substantial growth in their chemical industries in recent years.”
There are some 125 inspections of OCPF sites annually representing nearly 3 percent of their total numbers, Trapp said. Currently, no facility can be inspected more than twice in a year. Under the convention no state party is to have more than 20 combined checks of its Schedule 3 and “other’ locations in a single year.
“I know the U.S. government and other Western nations would support raising the cap,” Tucker said. “But countries most likely to be affected by the increase, like China, are resisting because they would have to bear a higher burden of inspections.”
Trapp argued it was more important to focus on improving the criteria for choosing sites to be inspected than increasing the number of facilities visited each year.
“Without increasing the ability to better target OCPF inspections, even a significant increase [in annual site inspections] will only marginally improve the probability to select ‘the right’ facilities,” he said.
Tucker said the present OCPF inspection criteria make it difficult to target site visits toward facilities that pose the greatest risk of diversion. As a result, he said, “many of the OCPF inspections are wasted on plants that produce methanol or some other totally harmless chemical.”
Walker said more information was needed to better select which sites should be inspected. The annual declarations provided by the plants are not sufficient, he argued.
Some nonproliferation experts have called for the chemical-weapon control regime to be permitted to supplement the annual industry declarations with additional information that could be gleaned from publicly available sources such as company Web sites. The proposal has been opposed by many states parties, which are sensitive to the idea of the convention using information that they do not provide, according to Tucker.
“I think that makes eminent sense but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s politically acceptable,” he said.
Trapp said he supports “a small increase in the detail” of the annual declarations, which he says would benefit the chemical industry and lower the likelihood of inspections that pose little diversion risk. Additional reported data should inform the monitoring body on whether the plant “has multipurpose character or is … designed to make one and only one product,” he said.
This idea also faces opposition from states parties and industry groups that believe more detailed reporting requirements would create undue hassles, the independent consultant said, adding he did not think the proposal had a very good chance of being implemented.
Trapp said he supports having a space on the annual declaration form where chemical firms can indicate whether their OCPF site houses multipurpose technology. By noting if a facility is not multifunctional -- an ‘opt out’ rather than an ‘opt in’ -- businesses could reduce their likelihood of coming under inspection without increasing their reporting requirements.
“You would never get down to no inspections but you would certainly be able to reduce inspection frequencies compared to other sites,” he added.
The rigor and quality of inspections has also been questioned. “Routine inspections of OCPFs are typically more of a ‘consistency check’ rather than the more accurate quantitative verification associated with other OPCW routine industry inspections,” Mathews noted in his paper.
Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie said by e-mail he agrees with the OPCW Technical Secretariat’s 2008 assessment that "the [OCPF] inspection effort carried out so far in this category still does not provide a sufficient level of assurances for nonproliferation purposes.”
Experts said the OCPF monitoring issue is regularly studied in The Hague, though not much headway has been made on agreeing how to improve the annual declarations and inspection selection criteria due to lack of sufficient political will from member nations.
“The challenge for the longer term of the … treaty regime is really to build a very strong, effective and coherent oversight regime,” Walker said. “The OPCW has to work out a cost-efficient best practices inspection regime that can sort of randomly select [Other Chemical Production Facilities] across the globe to verify from time to time.”