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CBRN threats to the natural environment are rarely addressed and countermeasures are rarely thought about. This article is a study of the landscape of the threat.

The large majority of CBRN-related articles in this magazine cover technologies and solutions to problems. Indeed, some products in the CBRN space are, in effect, solutions looking for a problem. Many segments, such as detection and individual protective equipment, have fundamentally solved the basic problems and have long since graduated into a long phase where they are working on small incremental improvements. However, there are areas which are the opposite – threats and problems that have very few solutions available at present. One of these areas is the CBRN threat to the natural environment and natural resources. Unfortunately, this is an aspect of the CBRN threat that is rarely addressed in a methodical manner. Countermeasures are rarely thought about, for reasons that will be explained below. Therefore, this article will have to be more of a study of the landscape of the threat, rather than a traditional survey of products and technologies.
The general thinking in military CBRN circles regards CBRN hazards as threats of injury or death to military personnel, as threats of contamination to equipment and key terrain, and as a general threat of degradation of military capability. Damage to civilian property or the environment rarely rates in military CBRN thinking, except perhaps in terms of possible contamination of water supplies or transportation routes.

Civilian Emergency Response

Civilian emergency response thinking in the CBRN arena places somewhat higher emphasis on CBRN threats to the environment, but the overall emphasis is still rightly on protection of people followed by protection of property. Protection of the environment becomes a distant third in operational priorities. However, as normal human life requires use of natural resources, CBRN incidents that damage or contaminate the natural environment can end up posing threats to human health and safety, especially through things like contamination of the food chain, water, or even building materials. Time, resources, expenditures, and research effort spent on protecting natural resources and the environment is minimal compared to protecting people. Given limited budgets, it is hard to fault such decisions.

Major Radiological Incidents

The largest examples of CBRN threats to the natural environment in the last few decades have been major releases of radioactive material due to accidents at nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors, while generally quite safe, contain a wide variety of radioisotopes of varying degrees of danger and longevity. Some contents of a nuclear reactor, like Cesium 137, are both highly radioactive and have relatively long half-lives. Cesium 137’s half-life is slightly more than 30 years. Others have shorter half-lives but are potential health threats because they are easily absorbed by humans or other animals. Radioactive isotopes of iodine can be absorbed into thyroids, or into many types of plants. Strontium can mimic calcium and end up in milk and bones. All of these have proven to be at least theoretical problems after major nuclear incidents. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has developed a grading scale for nuclear disasters, the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). IAEA’s INES scale ranges from 1 (anomaly) to 7 – major accident with widespread consequences including damage to the environment. To date, there have only been two INES 7 events – Chernobyl and Fukushima. The Chernobyl disaster saw much loss of human life, both directly and in terms of lifespans cut short by radiation-related illnesses. It also saw widespread property damage, including the abandonment of entire towns and villages. The exclusion zone is still enforced, over thirty years after the incident. It should be noted that the environmental situation in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is not entirely bad. The near complete curtailment of human activity has led to significant re-wilding of the area. The phenomenon of nature taking over where human effort has ceased is as much a valid subject of study as the long-term environmental damage. The more recent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan is a somewhat different example. Actual loss of life from radiation was quite low, especially given the concurrent earthquakes and tsunamis which killed many. One thing was quickly apparent in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident. There was far more data available in the months after the incident. Vast amounts of data, much of it from private individuals posting their own radiation sensor data, was made available on the internet. The national government and many regional and local governments monitored air, water, plants, and food. The widespread availability of reliable radiation data meant that the overall phenomenon could be studied. A large body of knowledge about how radioactive fallout from such an incident is now available to modern science. This knowledge will help in the event of a future incident. A broad conclusion that could be drawn is that the Fukushima incident did result in widespread issues with agriculture and water, but that through aggressive monitoring, the size and scope of the problem can be ascertained. It should be noted that there have been other serious radiological incidents of somewhat lesser scope. For example, the little-known 1957 Kyshtym nuclear disaster in Russia, long suppressed by secrecy rules in the Soviet era (INES level 6), entailed a serious release of nuclear materials. A 16,600-hectare area of remote countryside was effectively quarantined for decades, under the guise of making it into a nature reserve. It is still off limits to the general population. The 1957 Windscale nuclear plant fire in Cumbria, in the North of England, resulted in a month’s milk production in the local area being impounded and disposed of.

Nuclear Weapons Testing

The IAEA INES system only refers to accidents. It does not refer to deliberate testing of nuclear weapons. Although it has been many decades since the world generally abandoned above-ground nuclear testing, there have been numerous underground nuclear tests. Although most countries have ceased such activity, it still continues in North Korea, with a test as recent as 2017. It has been clearly established from studies in Nevada, USA, that underground nuclear tests result in radioactive isotopes migrating into groundwater.

The Bhopal disaster was a gas leak incident on 2 December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. It is considered to be the world’s worst industrial disaster. Over 500,000 people were exposed to a highly toxic substance, killing thousands of people. (Photo: Julian Nyca)

Former CBRN Industrial Complexes

The history of the production of chemical warfare agents and chemical munitions has been fraught with health and safety problems. There have been a number of environmental problems associated with various large state-level manufacturing efforts for chemical weapons. The very first nerve agent factory, the Third Reich’s secret factory at Dyhernfurth in Silesia, dumped many tons of the nerve agent TABUN into the Oder river in early 1945. There was an infamous incident near Volgograd in the USSR in the early 1960. Waste chemicals leaked from the “Beketovka” SARIN factory and caused an incident known locally as the “White Sea”, where millions of fish were killed. Poor waste handling at the US Army’s chemical warfare agent plant in Colorado led to extensive contamination of water and soil. Indeed, much of what we know about the history of the US chemical weapons effort comes from documents released due to environmental litigation. The exact extent of contamination to the environment in places like Russia, China, Iraq, and Syria (to name but a few) due to chemical weapons manufacturing or testing is poorly defined.

Old Chemical Munitions in the Ground

The environmental legacy of old CBRN weapons programmes is not limited to the environmental disasters left by industrial efforts. Active chemical warfare from 1915 onwards has left a legacy of unexploded bombs and shells containing chemical warfare agents. Historically, chemical artillery shells often had a poor reputation for duds, so the chemical battlefields of the past. In addition, some chemical munitions were hastily abandoned during or after battles. First World War chemical munitions have been recovered almost every year since 1918 along the footprint of the old Western Front. Munitions have occasionally turned up on other fronts, in places like Northwest Italy and Poland. This author met with Estonian technicians who had discovered old German chemical weapons in Estonia in the early 2000s. Some turned up in a residential neighbourhood in Washington, DC in the mid-1990s. Rumours of chemical munitions in Morocco from the 1920s Rif War remain unconfirmed, but Italy has had to act to deal with recovered munitions in Ethiopia several times over the decades. While it is not often discussed in broader considerations of the Second World War, there was significant use of chemical weapons by Japan against China. At the end of the war, literally hundreds of thousands (and possibly more) chemical bombs and shells were abandoned, mostly in Manchuria. Numerous incidents in the following decades caused injury, death, and environmental damage. The entire issue of abandoned chemical weapons features as its own entire strand of China-Japan bilateral relationships. A 1997 study showed that many Japanese munitions pose a hazard to municipal water supplies. Some of these contain Lewisite, which degrades into various arsenic compounds that can contaminate ground and water for decades. More recently, China is not the only example. In recent years, Albania discovered an inventory of Mustard gas left over from a secret programme during its decades of communist rule. More recent conflicts, such the Iran-Iraq conflict and the ongoing civil war in Syria, pose the possibility of further environmental problems from old munitions. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) levies serious responsibilities on its member states to account for and safely recover and demilitarise old munitions wherever possible.

Old Chemical Munitions in the Sea

After the Chernobyl disaster, the reactor building was encased by a mammoth concrete sarcophagus which, in turn, has been supplemented by a “New Safe Confinement” in 2017. (Photo: Tim Porter)

By far the largest inventory of old chemical weapons still in existence are old stockpiles of chemical munitions that were disposed of in the world’s oceans. Serious dumping operations happened in the North Atlantic, Baltic Sea, and Irish Sea, although disposal operations occurred elsewhere as well. A 2017 study by the USA-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies documented 224 confirmed or suspected dumping sites. Many thousands of tonnes of chemical agents were disposed of at sea. Nobody really knows the full extent, as records are incomplete. There are also significant discrepancies in what records do exist, as some record agent tonnage (amount of chemical warfare agent), others report munition tonnage (the actual weight of the whole shell or bomb or rocket), and yet others conflate conventional munitions with chemical ones. Significant amounts of conventional munitions were disposed of concurrent with chemical munitions.

This dumping happened for reasons that were largely logical at the time, particularly since environmental considerations were not always prevalent until the 1960s or later. The majority of chemical munitions produced since the First World War were made with a view towards being used, not safely dismantled. At the time of their design, there was usually little consideration as to how to safely dispose of such weapons. The two World Wars, as well as the Cold War, left large stockpiles of chemical weapons.

While few at the time thought that dropping weapons into the sea was ideal, it was the least unsafe disposal option available at the time. Disposal at sea tapered off in the 1970s as other demilitarisation options became more technically feasible and environmental concerns became more prominent. A large portion of these munitions were dropped into the sea on ships sunk in deep locations. Some, such as US Army SARIN rockets, were cast inside concrete slabs before being put on old merchant ships and sunk in several thousand metres of water. Others are in more shallow locations. Sunken munitions pose numerous problems, as fishing, underwater cables, and pipelines could disrupt them. Munitions will eventually leak. Some of the chemical agents are highly reactive with water and will degrade into other things. Some will persist for a very long time. There is some serious question as to what can be done about this vast underwater inventory. At present, the basic consensus is not much more advanced than the decision processes that led to the weapons being dumped into the sea. Leaving the munitions where they are and not touching them is likely to be the safest and most cost-effective course of action for decades to come.

Threats to Wildlife, Plants, Livestock, and Agriculture

CBRN materials can be injurious to wildlife and livestock animals. Problems can manifest themselves as acute issues subsequent to an accident or incident. A US chemical weapons test gone wrong killed thousands of sheep in Utah in the late 1960s in the so-called “Skull Valley Incident”. In this case, it was a deliberate release of the nerve agent VX for testing purposes, but the wind shifted unexpectedly. Problems can also result from chronic exposure to historical contamination over a long period of time. Wild badgers have been found ill and dead near Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado, where they appear to have been exposed to trace levels of waste left over from manufacturing activities at that chemical warfare industrial site. As a practical matter, we know more about these sorts of incidents in the USA than other places, due to greater transparency. However, China occasionally reports livestock-related incidents due to discovered Japanese chemical munitions. Similarly, various incidents have affected plants and crops. It should also be noted that contamination of trees is of concern, not just out of general concern for the environment, but also because of the use of forestry products for wood and construction

Water Supply Contamination

Water is the most fundamental of all natural resources and the root of all industry and commerce. Major incidents have caused actual contamination of water from groundwater, the sea, rivers, or lakes. This is perhaps the one area where military CBRN operations take the threat seriously. Militaries run on water as much as food, fuel, and ammunition.

Military CBRN detection equipment designed to test for the presence of chemical warfare agents or radiological particles have been around for decades. CBRN filtration requirements are now fairly standard features of military water purification systems in the world’s major militaries, as discussed in this magazine last year. Some consideration has been given to threats to civilian water supplies, either due to terrorism or warfare. This has been generally part of a broader approach to consider threats to critical infrastructure as a whole. Some European Union projects have occurred in this space. One, SAFEWATER, was an EU FP7 project that ran from 2013 to 2016, with modest results. Several smaller projects in this area have also been funded as part of FP7 or Horizon 2020. This is clearly a space where EU funding could make a difference if properly applied.

Agriculture as a Target

The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant 2011 immediately after the 2011 tsunami (Photo: Digital Globe)

Finally, it is important to mention that deliberate targeting of agriculture has long been considered a strategic biological warfare threat. Indeed, the US biological warfare programme, before it was disbanded, placed a strong emphasis on anti-agricultural biological agents, such as fungi. Various crops such as wheat and rice were targeted and field tests were quite successful. It is possible that countries like Syria and North Korea, long suspected of having offensive biological warfare programmes, have experimented with anti-crop agents.

Future Prospects

This article reads more like a catalogue of deficiencies and threats than a survey of capabilities and product. For now, protection of military personnel and the civilian populace from injury or death takes the highest priority in CBRN. Protection of equipment and property takes a second place in the queue for funding and emphasis. The various threats to natural resources and the environment tend to only get major attention after a major incident. Interest (and funding) tends to wane in the years after an incident. However, it is not all doom. The incidents that have happened, as well as incidents unrelated to CBRN that have similar stresses and effects (such as natural disasters affecting water supplies) have provided a lot of knowledge. Incidents like Fukushima give us a wealth of data as to how once theoretical threats actually behave in the real world. At the end of the day, though, this is a segment of the threat that deserves a higher degree of care and attention, both from military and civil authorities.

Dan Kaszeta is Managing Director at Strongpoint Security Ltd. and a regular contributor to ESD.