The world wants Syria's chemical arsenal destroyed. But so far, no country has offered to do the dirty work on its soil. Over the past week, an alternative has gained ground: Carry out the destruction at sea. The plan taking shape is complicated and untested, but it just might work.
Ever since Syria announced its willingness to give up its chemical stockpiles in September, the international community knew it had a tough task ahead. In other countries, like Iraq and Albania, the chemicals were burned in purpose-built incinerators. But Syria is a war zone, so building a specialized chemical-weapons disposal plant isn't an option.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) tried to find another country that might be willing to take on the worst of Syria's chemical stocks. But after a few months of asking around, it found that nobody wants 500 metric tons of the nastiest chemical weapons ingredients.
"Every country said no," says Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, an environmental group that tracks the effects of weapons disposal. "The final alternative is to do it on a ship somewhere on the high seas."
The United States has now offered a ship named the MV Cape Ray. It's basically an oversized car ferry that the U.S. Department of Transportation had available for naval operations. Now it's in Portsmouth, Va., being turned into a floating disposal plant for chemical weapons.
"They're replumbing it," Walker says. "You know they have enough plumbers there, I think, probably right now to plumb a city."
While the U.S. gets the Cape Ray ready, the United Nations and the OPCW are trying to figure out how to get the chemicals out of Syria and to the ship. First the Syrian Army must transport them through a war zone to the port of Latakia. Speaking on Wednesday, Sigrid Kaag, who is leading the joint effort, said that the security situation was so fragile, she had to fly to the port: "I had to travel to Latakia via Lebanon using a helicopter."
But Kaag says the only route for the chemicals will be over land. "This is a viable best-assessed option and we just need to make sure that it can happen," she says.
When they get to the port, the Cape Ray won't be there to meet them. A U.S. vessel in a Syrian port could become a target. So instead the plan calls for the chemicals to be loaded onto another boat. On Friday, the Danish government announced it will offer a transport ship and a frigate, the Esbern Snare, to pick up the chemicals. The plan is for the Danish ships to take them to another port, yet to be identified, where the weapons components will finally be transferred to the Cape Ray.
Only then can the destruction of the chemicals begin.
The U.S. military will have installed two brand-new mobile chemical weapons disposal units, known as Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. Picture giant vats — the sort you might see at a brewery. They use hot water and other chemicals to break down the toxic weapons components. Or at least that's the theory.
"The system itself has never been tested in full capacity or full throughput mode," says Walker.
And there's plenty that could go wrong. These units have a lot of plumbing. Pipes could clog with salts produced by the destruction process. The chemicals themselves are highly caustic and could cause valves to corrode. The chemicals from Syria aren't the actual nerve agents, they're so-called precursors. But they're still toxic, and if some leaked they would be a mess to clean up.
And, don't forget, this is going to be happening on the open ocean. "You don't want to have really high waves or swells that can rock and roll the boat," Walker says. "Because this stuff is wet chemistry. ... You don't want it splashing around."
As it disposes of these chemicals, the ship will fill its hold with waste from the process. The waste won't be as toxic as the original stuff.
"Something like Drano, I suppose, if you wanted to clean your drains," says Walker. "This is not something you'd want to drink, but it won't kill you if you touch it or breathe it in."
It's still nasty enough that it will have to be taken somewhere else for final disposal.
The plan still must be approved by the 41 member states of OPCW's executive council. But observers are hopeful the complex disposal mission can go forward. "I think this can work," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. But, Kimball adds, "We're likely to see some hiccups and delays along the way."
The deadline is tight. Once the final go ahead is given, the goal is to get it done by June 30, 2014.
It was 1966, and a ship called the Daniel J. Morrell was making its last run of the season, hauling steel across Lake Huron. The crew was eager to head home for Christmas. But one night, caught in a severe storm, the ship broke apart and sank.
Only a few of the crew members made it to a life raft, and only one of them, watchman Dennis Hale, survived.
"It took eight minutes from the time the general alarm sounded until I wound up in the water," Dennis told his wife, Barbara, on a visit to StoryCorps in Ohio. "The main deck was starting to tear. You could see sparks; you could hear it ripping real slow like a piece of paper. ...
"By dawn, I looked at the kid in front of me and there was some white foam coming out of his mouth. And I jabbed him, and I said, 'You all right, man?' And he didn't respond," Hale continues. "And behind me was another fellow — there was no response from him either.
"And so I kicked the third guy, and I said, 'Are you OK?' He says, 'I'm hanging in there.' We talked about being home for Christmas with our families. But he says, 'It feels like my lungs are filling up or something.' "
He started coughing, Dennis says, and then passed away "with his arm around me."
"I guess my biggest fear right then and there was I didn't want to be out there alone. When you're in a situation like that, you don't really care if you live or die, you just want the whole thing over with," he explains.
The ordeal lasted 38 hours. Dennis tried to suffocate himself, but "all I managed to do was gag myself," he says. "And before long I saw daylight again. At one point I heard this noise overhead, and I looked and it was a helicopter. And I waved to them. ...
"And the next morning I wasn't fine, but I wasn't dead, either. Every day I'd ask the nurse if there's any survivors. I figured I survived, why couldn't somebody else?
"Finally one day she came in, she says, 'You should stop asking. It's been too long. If there's anybody else out there, they're dead.' I just felt shame, embarrassment. I didn't want to be the sole survivor. I just wanted my old life back. There were 28 people aboard. It was quite a loss — my whole family."
Haunted by survivor's guilt, Dennis refused to talk about his experience for almost three decades. But if he had a chance to talk to his shipmates today, he tells Barbara, he would tell them "that I miss them, that I love them and I'm glad for the time we had together."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in an address marking his 86th birthday, called on his people to do their duty "for stability, security of our nation" in an apparent reference to ongoing anti-government protests.
While avoiding a direct reference to the sometimes violent demonstrations that have rocked the capital, Bangkok, in recent weeks, the world's longest-serving monarch, said "All Thais should ... behave and perform our duties accordingly, our duty for the sake of the public, for stability, security for our nation of Thailand."
The king's birthday ceremony took place at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, 120 miles south of Bangkok, where the ailing monarch and Queen Sirikit moved when he left the hospital in July.
As NPR's Krishnadev Calamur reported earlier this week, "The protests began Nov. 24 but turned violent ... when police clashed with demonstrators opposed to the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra."
The Bangkok Post says the king "spoke in a halting but determined voice with long pauses in between sentences. His message was clear and significant given the country's current political turmoil."
The anti-government demonstrations were placed on hold in respect for the king, but protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who leads a faction that has adopted the royal color yellow as its symbol, has pledged to resume his fight against Yingluck's government again on Friday.
Earlier this year, Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party introduced an amnesty bill that would have allowed her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from self-imposed exile abroad. Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, later fled the country amid charges of corruption against him.
King Bhumibol, although technically a figurehead, is revered as a unifying figure in a country that has become increasingly divided along class lines - with wealthier, middle-class Thais in the cities steadily losing political clout to the poorer, rice-growing regions of the north and northeast.
In April 1994, the world watched as millions of South Africans — most of them jubilant, but many wary — cast their ballots in that nation's first multiracial election. The outcome: Nelson Mandela became president of a new South Africa.
Mandela's journey from freedom fighter to president capped a dramatic half-century-long struggle against white rule and the institution of apartheid. This five-part series, originally produced in 2004, marked the 10th anniversary of South Africa's first free election.
Produced for NPR by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Sue Johnson, Mandela: An Audio History tells the story of the struggle against apartheid through rare sound recordings of Mandela himself, as well as those who fought with and against him.
The Birth Of Apartheid (1944-1960)
In the 1940s, Nelson Mandela was one of thousands of blacks who flocked to Johannesburg in search of work. At that time, a new political party came into power promoting a new idea: the separation of whites and blacks. Apartheid was born and along with it, a half-century-long struggle to achieve democracy in South Africa.
The Underground Movement (1960-1964)
In 1960, with the African National Congress banned, resistance to apartheid went underground. Faced with an intensified government crackdown, Mandela launched Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK — a military wing of the ANC — and the armed struggle began. Two years later, Mandela was arrested for and convicted of high treason. He and eight others were sentenced to life in prison.
Robben Island (1964-1976)
As Mandela and other political leaders languished in prison, the government crackdown appeared to have crushed the resistance movement. But on June 16, 1976, a student uprising in Soweto sparked a new generation of activism.
State Of Emergency (1976-1990)
Guerrilla soldiers on the border, unrest in the townships, striking workers and a wave of international attention were making South Africa's system of apartheid untenable. Something had to give — and it did on Feb. 2, 1990, when South African President F.W. de Klerk announced he would lift a 30-year ban on the ANC and free Mandela after 27 years in prison.
On April 27, 1994, Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. But that triumph didn't come easily. The four years between Mandela's release and the transition to democracy were some of the most volatile and painful in the country's history.
Stephen Sondheim has written quite a few classic musicals — Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods — but he's had just one hit song, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. And as he tells an audience in Six by Sondheim, it was a tricky one to write because the star who had to sing it, Glynis Johns, wasn't a singer with a capital "s".
"She had a lovely, sweet, bell-like voice, which was breathy and short-winded," Sondheim says. "So it's written in short phrases ... it's not hard to sing."
Countless backstage stories, culled mostly from interviews and archival footage, are assembled in Six by Sondheim into the story of a life — and a life's work. You'll hear what the grand master of the American musical learned from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, and what he learned on the job with West Side Story, where his first professional lyrics were seriously overshadowed by Leonard Bernstein's music — at least in the eyes of critics.
Live and learn. And learn you will watching Six by Sondheim — a biographical sketch as master class. It's running in select cities this weekend, and on HBO Monday night.
Tim's Vermeer also centers on a single artist, except he's not an artist. He's an inventor. As a pioneer of desktop video software, Tim Jenison knows visuals, but he'd never so much as held a paintbrush when he decided to try to paint the way the 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer did in some of the most exquisite oil paintings ever.
Jenison had read that the Renaissance masters probably used, in their work, some of the tools that would eventually lead, centuries later, to photography — lenses and mirrors. And that intrigued him.
Jenison tries the technique, using an old black-and-white photo as source material. As he dabs grey paint on masonite, blobs slowly become cheeks, and finally the camera pulls back and you see what he's painted. I've watched the film three times now, and all three times the audience has gasped. It is the black and white photo, in oil. Astonishing. And that's just the start.
Director Teller, best known as the silent half of the magic team Penn and Teller, whisks you through all kinds of complicated concepts, but his narrative is crystal clear as Jenison proceeds from this first test to building a copy of Vermeer's studio in a Texas warehouse. There, he'll reconstruct the room Vermeer painted in The Music Lesson — harpsichord, chair, stained glass windows. The process of putting those three-dimensional objects on canvas in natural light is so fascinating that no one's going to make jokes about watching paint dry — though at one point the film is literally about watching paint dry. And then applying varnish.
As with Six by Sondheim, Tim's Vermeer works at capturing on film how artists work their miracles. And it will have you, long after the credits fade, puzzling out questions of invention, creativity, science, talent, painstaking craft, and the magic that comes of putting all that together. (Recommended)