How Does France Manage Old Chemical Weapons?

19 Dec 2013


October 14, 2013 : a ministerial decree permits ASTRIUM to build SECOIA at Mailly-le-Camp.

For 13 years, Robin des Bois has been working on the war waste issue including chemical weapons. Considering the current state of development it seems useful to review the doctrine and the actual practice of France in relation to the international Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction known as the Chemical Weapons Convention. The majority of chemical weapons to be destroyed on French territory were made with phosgene and chloropicrin, mustard gas and chlorobenzene, zinc tetrachloride, arsenic and cyanide.

France signed the Convention on January 13, 1993 and played a major role in writing up the text.

The program SECOIA (Destruction Site of Weapons Identified as Old)* was imposed by a legislative decree in December 1996. It designates the destruction of all old chemical weapons to the French Ministry of Defence.

The Convention entered into force on April 1997.

In October 1997, the project SECOIA (draft n°1) was divided into three stages: feasibility, conception and operation. It was designed to destroy 100 tonnes of chemical weapons per year, when fully operational, for a period of 30 years and if necessary up to 300 tonnes a year.
Every regional defence Prefect is thus called upon to carry out an inventory, as accurate as possible, of their chemical weapons stockpiles either known or suspected, including the possible dumping in lakes, geological cavities and forests, relying in particular on collective memory.

In 2001, it was decided to deploy SECOIA (draft n°2) within the Suippes military camp in the Marne department where the chemical weapons would be destroyed at a rate of 25 tonnes per year and if necessary up to 90 tonnes per year. The military camp covers an area of 15,000 hectares. The first trials were scheduled for 2005.

In 2002, the Suippes option was abandoned due to its inappropriate proximity with military exercises. Situated at 60 km from Suippes, Mailly-le-Camp in the Aube department was the next designated site. The project (edition n°3) was scheduled to process, 20 tonnes per year, for 30 years when fully operational and if necessary 85 tonnes per year. The operation was to be launched in 2007.

However, the operation fell into financial, technical and legal difficulties. The French multinational Thales Group which provides services for aerospace, defense, and security markets, was suspected of having received confidential information from the French General Delegation for Armaments (French procurement agency) before answering the European call for tender. Another legal complication was used as a pretext for the suspension of the project. In fact, some areas of protected flowers were identified during the impact assessment and seemed, for several years, to be an insurmountable obstacle.

In 2009, the project (draft n°4) resurfaced with a new call for tender. It was designed to destroy 42 tonnes per year for 16 years, the exact quantity and duration needed to destroy the existing stock at Suippes and potential new discoveries coming in drips and drabs. No room for the unexpected or for hidden stockpiles.

The tender was awarded to Astrium, the European Space Company, in summer 2011. The French Ministry of Defence announced that it would be put in place in 2015.

It was only in April 2013 that the public inquiry was held.

A favourable opinion was given in June 2013 by the Chief Inquiry Officer.

On paper, the operation phase has been postponed until 2017 i.e.: 20 years after the SECOIA decree and 100 years after WWI when, for the first time, industrially produced chemical weapons were deployed.

Every year, while waiting for SECOIA to be operational, a further 20 tonnes of chemical weapons are stored at Suippes. In 2001, 55 tonnes, 86 tonnes in 2003, 200 tonnes in 2008 and 250 tonnes from 17,000 weapons in 2012. Chemical weapons are stockpiled in old concrete cells which were used to store nuclear warheads and were renovated into refrigerated cells. The accumulation of chemical weapons is significant, yet the total could have been more significant. Indeed, chemical weapons discovered during public works, private or agricultural works are often destroyed outdoors, close to the discovery. This practice is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention which requires, as much as possible the reduction of atmospheric emissions. In “Waiting for the bomb disposal team”, Robin des Bois’ inventory on weapons, published in August 2012, these occurrences are investigated and described. For example, in 2010 in Gauchy in the Aisne department numerous phosgene bombs were destroyed outdoors.

Lacking technical and financial means and in absence of persistent and coherent political will, France has recently invested in “creative” legal means. A provision Order in 2005 states that “the dumping of weapons that cannot be eliminated on land without presenting serious risks to humans and the environment can be authorized by the authority representing the State”. Therefore, at present, there is a legal loophole which can be used by Maritime Prefects to carry out the dumping at sea of chemical weapons, the continuation of a practice initiated in the 1920s. The law of July 15, 2008 known as: “Archive Act” prohibits the consultation of public archives which could assist in locating chemical weapons. Prohibiting access to archives impedes historians, people’s representatives, planners, and the public from contributing to the inventory required by the Chemical Weapon Convention. It also impedes the implementation of necessary means before issuing building permits or allowing soil consolidation.

* SECOIA – (Site d’Elimination des Charges d’Objets Identifiés Anciens)




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