WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon cleared the way Monday for the removal of 400 tons of nerve gas weapons from West Germany by the end of the year and their transfer to a remote Pacific island for destruction.
Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Atwood, acting in place of traveling Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, removed the last hurdle by certifying to Congress that the U.S. chemical weapons incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean is working and has adequate storage capacity for weapons.
'That means the retrograde (removal of the chemical weapons in West Germany) can begin and probably can begin very shortly,' Army spokesman Maj. Joe Padilla said.
Removal of all U.S. chemical weapons in West Germany is expected to take one to four months. Padilla said the exact date for beginning removal will have to be coordinated with the West German government.
President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement June 1 to halt production of chemical weapons as soon as the pact is ratified by U.S. and Soviet lawmakers and to reduce each side's chemical stockpile to 5,000 tons by 2002.
The United States has about 25,000 tons of chemical weapons, the Soviet Union about 50,000 tons.
In his notice to Congress, Atwood certified that the 'Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Destruction System has destroyed live agent chemical munitions, and that adequate storage capacity exists at Johnston Atoll to accommodate any chemical munitions or hazardous materials transported to that site,' the Pentagon said.
Congress required the certification before weapons could be removed from West Germany.
The nerve gas is in about 100,000 artillery shells stored in a large, secluded depot at Clausen, near the French border in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The stockpile consists of two types of nerve gas, Sarin and VX, odorless and colorless agents that attack the nervous system and can cause convulsions and death within minutes.
Under the U.S. withdrawal plan, the shells will be placed in vapor-proof containers,trucked in high-security convoys 28 miles to a rail station at Miesau, taken by train several hundred miles to the North Sea port of Nordenham, and then shipped to Johnston Atoll, 700 miles southwest of Hawaii, for destruction by the U.S. Army.
The removal is projected to cost $46 million.
An initial U.S.-German plan called for withdrawal of the weapons by 1992 but West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl successfully pressed the Bush administration in 1989 to move more quickly.
The weapons to be removed from West Germany are 'unitary' shells that contain deadly gas. The more modern 'binary' weapons carry two chemical agents that are harmless until mixed together shortly before reaching their targets.
The removal will leave the United States without chemical weapons in Western Europe for the first time in more than 20 years.
As a result of the new U.S.-Soviet accord, Cheney earlier this month canceled planned tests of the nation's newest chemical weapon and told military officials to begin to prepare to put chemical production facilities into mothballs.
He also withdrew the administration's request for $140 million in new production funds for binary chemical warheads for artillery shells and bombs.
The United Staes resumed production of chemical weapons in 1987 following an 18-year moratorium.