March 9, 2001

Lab expertise tapped to reduce chemical weapons threat

The Laboratory’s state-of-the-art forensic capabilities for ultratrace chemical analysis have been enlisted in the global effort to reduce the threat of chemical weapons.

At the request of the State Department, Department of Defense and DOE, LLNL has begun the procedure to become the second U.S. laboratory certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The Laboratory was selected because of its cutting-edge Forensic Science Center, state-of-the-art environmental controls and facilities, and physical security.

Based in The Hague, Netherlands, the OPCW is responsible for the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, which to date has been ratified by more than 135 countries, including the United States. The CWC outlaws the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons as well as the transfer of chemical-weapon-related technologies.

"Chemical and biological weapons are a growing threat to the security of the United States and its allies," said Jeff Richardson, Deputy Program Leader for the Proliferation Prevention and Arms Control Program. "Putting the capabilities of the Forensic Science Center to work in the effort to prevent the spread of chemical weapons is one more way the Laboratory can contribute to national and international security."

Under the terms of the CWC, all samples must be analyzed at two OPCW-designated laboratories. In addition, the U.S. Congress mandates that all U.S. samples must be tested in the U.S. Currently, the U.S. only has one designated laboratory, the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Forensic Analytical Center in Maryland. LLNL will provide the required second facility.

About a dozen laboratories around the world have been designated by the OPCW. These laboratories must maintain high scores on yearly proficiency tests to keep their designation.

The Lab will begin the rigorous testing required for OPCW certification in early April, with official designation expected in 2002. Once certified the Laboratory will analyze samples as part of the OPCW’s regular proficiency testing and inspection cycle. Designated labs keep their capabilities sharp by regularly testing samples of surrogate chemical weapon agents (compounds that are chemically similar to CW agents and their precursors).

The purpose of the OPCW-designated labs is to test samples collected by OPCW inspectors from chemical plants around the world to determine whether the samples contain chemical weapons agents and their precursor chemicals or decomposition products. "To date no actual samples have been officially collected or analyzed at any lab. The only ‘samples’ examined have been those provided for proficiency tests or round-robin exercises," Richardson said. "State Department officials believe we will receive, at most, one or two samples per month, but we will have a facility that is fully prepared to perform the analysis."

Richardson emphasized that "Our samples will be extremely dilute (i.e., part-per-million level). So dilute that they can be shipped commercially or sent through the mail. In fact, one of the main reasons we’ve been selected is for our unmatched ability to characterize chemicals at ultratrace levels."

DOE and the State Department will jointly provide the $1 million needed to establish LLNL as the second U.S. OPCW-designated lab. Once the LLNL lab is accredited, DOE will provide the funding to maintain the laboratory and perform required sample analysis.

"We have all the facilities in place and the work falls within our existing environmental regulations," said Richardson. "This is a good fit for our forensic activities and the Lab’s core mission. The work we will do as an OPCW-designated laboratory will help enforce the CWC and make the world a safer place."