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Technological Advances Could Reduce Effectiveness Of The Chemical Weapons Convention

August 17, 2005
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Technological advances within the chemical industry could erode the effectiveness of the Chemical Weapons Convention's provisions for verification and compliance.

Microreactor technologies developed at LLNL use micromachining techniques to miniaturize the reactor design. Applications include fuel processors for generating hydrogen, chemical synthesis, and bioreaction studies.
Credit: Image courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

LIVERMORE -- Technological advances within the chemical industry coulderode the effectiveness of the Chemical Weapons Convention's provisionsfor verification and compliance.

That assessment is offered by Tuan Nguyen, the Herbert York Fellow atLawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Center for Global SecurityResearch, in a paper to be published in the Aug. 12 edition of thejournal Science. (The York Fellowship honors the Laboratory's firstdirector, who is now director emeritus of the Institute on GlobalConflict and Cooperation at UC San Diego).

Because of the threat of chemical warfare and its use, the ChemicalWeapons Convention was signed in 1993 to ban the stockpiling,production and usage of chemical weapons. This treaty, now signed by170 nations, includes intrusive verification procedures that far exceedthose of other treaties banning weapons of mass destruction.

However, in recent years the world's chemical industry has beendeveloping micro-reactors that range in size from a credit card to thedimensions of a notebook to replace large batch reaction vessels. Forthe chemical industry, this change permits safer processing, betterchemical yields and a reduction in overall costs.

"The key issue with these advancements in science and technology isthat it's going to make it more difficult to monitor and verifycompliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention," Nguyen said.

In his paper, he noted: "The inherently small physical size of theequipment and small space required make it attractive for clandestineoperations. The ability to produce chemicals of interest in a safer andmore feasible manner, with little signature produced, could encouragetheir application for malicious intent."

Although the full chemical synthesis potential of micro-reactors is notyet clear, several lethal chemicals -- hydrogen cyanide, phosgene andmethyl isocyanate -- have already been produced using this system,according to Nguyen. In China, nitroglycerine has recently beenproduced using microprocess technology at a maximum rate of 10kilograms per hour.

Another danger created by the growing usage of micro-reactors is thatchemical weapon precursors could be synthesized rather than purchased,making it more difficult to discover the preparation of chemicalweapons.

In Nguyen's view, while the need for control and verification must nothinder the development of these chemical industry technologies, thesecurity challenges should not be ignored.

"To address these issues, the Organization for the Prohibition ofChemical Weapons should begin by partnering, not only with industryexperts, but also with innovators of this technology to identify andcharacterize immediate threats associated with these advancements, hesaid."

Another step that could be taken, Nguyen notes, would be to fullyimplement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which callson nations to adopt legislation to criminalize proliferation activitiesand to develop and implement appropriate, effective export controls.


Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has a missionto ensure national security and to apply science and technology to theimportant issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory ismanaged by the University of California for the U.S. Department ofEnergy's National Nuclear Security Administration.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Technological Advances Could Reduce Effectiveness Of The Chemical Weapons Convention." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 August 2005. <>.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (2005, August 17). Technological Advances Could Reduce Effectiveness Of The Chemical Weapons Convention. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "Technological Advances Could Reduce Effectiveness Of The Chemical Weapons Convention." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 23, 2017).