Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. A lawmaker from Syria's ruling party calls the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons a vindication for the Syrian government. President Assad has long claimed that Syrian rebels were the ones responsible for the gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August. He's even argued that it's easy for the rebels to make the lethal gas. Here's Assad in an interview on Fox News last month.
Bashar al-Assad: The sarin gas is called the kitchen gas. Do you know why? Because anyone can mix sarin in his house.
Hills: Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the US Army Chemical Corps. He's now an independent chemical weapons consultant. We spoke to him early. Dan Kaszeta, how about it, how easy is it to make sarin?
Dan Kaszeta: First of all, it takes some fairly complicated chemical engineering procedures to do it because the ingredients, some of them are frankly more dangerous than the sarin itself in some ways. Sarin itself is not physically corrosive, but some of the things that you have to do make sarin require things like hydrogen fluoride, which is one of the most corrosive and dangerous industrial substances on the planet. If you try to do it in your kitchen you're probably gonna kill yourself, and you're probably going to destroy your kitchen in the process because it require high temperature hydrogen fluoride.
Hills: Can you buy the ingredients for sarin on the market or on the web?
Kaszeta: Generally speaking, you can get some of the raw materials, but not others. You have to use some of the raw materials to manufacture further more sophisticated raw materials. It's not like you can get absolutely everything you need, and order it and have it turn up. It's actually a long convoluted process. It's not like basic kitchen cooking. You don't add part A and part B and get sarin. There's approximately 19, maybe 20, depending on who you ask, production pathways to produce sarin.
Kaszeta: So it's not like Breaking Bad.
Hills: No, it's not methamphetamine. It's not like making ricin out of castor juice or something like that.
Kaszeta: Let me put it in context for you. The one non state actor that made any significant amount of sarin was the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. And they actually spent millions of dollars, had over a dozen chemists and chemical engineers on their payroll...built a three-story laboratory with some very good, very complicated, expensive equipment bought through front companies. And they could make maybe about eight liters of sarin, and that was after rather a lot of trial and development.
Hills: And they famously used sarin in the Tokyo subway in 1995. I think about 13 people died.
Hills: In the case of making sarin, homemade sarin, is it primarily the difficulty in getting the ingredients or the explosive nature of them once you get them?
Kaszeta: It's primarily the corrosive nature of some of the precursor chemicals, and the fact that you have to do some things like have high temperature corrosive gases. I mean it will literally eat you alive. It will corrode metal, it will corrode plastic, it will corrode glass. One of the ways that I can describe this is the scientists that first developed this stuff, like the IG Farben company in Germany under Nazi Germany, they spent rather a lot of money putting in silver-lined plumbing to handle the stuff. The US had a sarin production facility in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in 1953-1957, and producing sarin. They went to great lengths to safely handle the, they corrosive products and did all sorts of things remotely to handle the ingredients. And even then they had incidents.
Hills: And is there any US stockpile of sarin now?
Kaszeta: There's a little bit left. I don't know the exact statistics. The US is in the middle of a lengthy chemical demilitarization program, getting rid of its old Cold War stockpile.
Hills: Hypothetically, if you get your hands on some sarin, how long can you store it?
Kaszeta: Ah, that's an interesting question. It depends on how well it's made. If you follow the basic process to make sarin, what you actually get is a cocktail of sarin and acids, okay? The US and the Soviet Union learned the dark art of refining the acid out at the last step. If you do that, add a few stabilizers, sarin can last 50 years. Some of the sarin that the US military built and made in 1957 when they took it out to destroy it was as good as the day it was made, but that's a result of many millions of dollars of research and development, and a lot of PhD chemists and chemical engineers working on it. You get the other side of the equation, you look at is sarin and the other nerve agents made by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's stuff had a shelf life of weeks, maybe months because they couldn't refine the acid out.
Hills: Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the US Army Chemical Corps. He's written a piece for Bloomberg News called No, You Can't Make Sarin In Your Kitchen. Dan, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Kaszeta: It's a pleasure.