The Syrian project's speed will hinge on how much of its chemical agents are already inside weapons, as they are in Kentucky. The job is easier if they aren't, Kuhlman said.
It will also depend on how the nation disposes of them. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, Iraq burned its chemical weapons in a ditch. The U.S. imposes environmental discharge rules, and destruction of the Blue Grass weapons was delayed in large part because local residents opposed incinerating them and Congress forced the Defense Department to find another way.
The U.S. chemical weapons stockpile contained more than 30,000 tons of lethal chemicals when the country signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, agreeing to destroy all of the weapons by last year. By comparison, Syria is estimated to have about 1,000 tons, Kuhlman said.
The U.S. chemical agents were stored at depots in Maryland, Arkansas, Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Colorado and Johnson Atoll, a territorial island in the South Pacific, in addition to the 14,500-acre Blue Grass site.
The Defense Department had been experimenting with ways of destroying the weapons before the U.S. signed the treaty, including dumping some of them at sea. In 1984, the Pentagon and the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, endorsed incineration as the best method.
That, too, is a slow process, said Kuhlman. Construction on an incinerator at Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah, which held 45 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile, started in 1989. Testing began in 1994, and it became operational in 1996, he said. It took two years to destroy a supply of nerve-agent weapons that was similar to the size of Syria's estimated stockpile. The entire Utah project took 15 years.
The U.S. met the treaty deadline at seven of nine sites, destroying 90 percent of its chemical stockpile. Most of the work was completed within the past few years.