To Hugh Gregg, it was a “fantastic” ending to a scientific career.
In 2010, after more than two decades working as an analytical organic chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Gregg went to Europe to head the international laboratory that helps look for signs of chemical weapons development and deployment.
The laboratory was part of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, based in The Hague, in Netherlands.
Gregg ran the lab there for seven and a half years, guiding its activities and growth, dealing with both routine developments and international crises before returning to California and retiring late last year.
With him was his wife, Becky Failor, another LLNL retiree. The two now live in Dublin.
In the Netherlands, he led a multicultural laboratory staff representing Scotland, India, Germany, China and Mauritius, in addition to the U.S. and host country Holland.
OPCW, an international cross-section, has more than 450 employees who speak many languages. English dominates, although official proceedings are recorded in five other languages to make sure interested parties aren’t left out.
Although not part of the United Nations, it works cooperatively with that body and has benefited from the association – particularly in the case of the chemical weapons crisis that erupted in Syria in 2013.
Chemical weapons have been among the most feared instruments of mass destruction for more than a century, after causing an estimated one million casualties during World War I.
They are notorious both for indiscriminate cruelty and military unreliability. During World War I, poison gas literally blew with the wind, sometimes contaminating terrain that attacking troops hoped to occupy, sometimes blowing back toward the attackers.
Today, OPCW tries to make sure no one makes or uses chemical weapons, a job that may be impossible in a world with terrorist groups and belligerent, secretive dictatorships.
It’s not for want of trying. Under the terms of a 1997 agreement called the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has been joined by nearly every country in the world, OPCW has overseen the destruction of an estimated 97 percent of the world’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
In part, it does its job by carrying out inspections and collecting samples for testing and analysis.
That’s where the OPCW laboratory comes in. It does not carry out the analyses itself, but sets high standards and makes sure fully qualified laboratories are available to do the testing.
At any given time, about 20 laboratories worldwide are qualified to serve as OPCW partner labs.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of two U.S. facilities that have made the grade, became an OPCW partner lab in 2003. The other is Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Gregg first began interacting with OPCW when he helped lead LLNL’s preparation for proficiency testing, traveling occasionally to OPCW headquarters in The Hague.
A few years later, he learned that the OPCW laboratory directorship was open, applied and was accepted.
He started work in 2010 at a time when the OPCW laboratory had eight staff, including himself.
Proud of Improvements
Gregg is proud of a number of things that he helped improve at the laboratory.
For one thing, as the workload increased in the years that followed, he was able to persuade his management to gradually expand laboratory staff to 13, and pay for a new building.
For another, he set up systems for doing both environmental and biomedical sampling to test for chemicals of concern.
Testing and exercises aside, the first time OPCW had to deal with genuine chemical weapons sampling occurred in 2013 after the Syrian regime appeared to use chemical weapons on rebels.
Because Syria had not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention at that point, OPCW was powerless to send in inspectors.
On the other hand, Syria was part of the United Nations, which sent inspectors who returned with an unusually large number of samples to be tested – 49, in contrast to the half-dozen or so that OPCW inspectors might have brought back.
The samples were analyzed by OPCW partner laboratories on an accelerated schedule; they indicated the presence of chemical weapons constituents.
Subsequent crises arose in early 2017, when the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was assassinated with VX nerve gas in an airport in Malaysia, and a year later when a former Russian spy was poisoned and nearly killed in England.
The Russian attack was carried out with a nerve gas, Novichok, that Russia is widely believed to have synthesized with a novel chemical formula that did not appear on any OPCW lists. As a result, it was not prohibited.
OPCW conducted tests on both of these, the North Korean murder occurring in Gregg’s final year and the Russian poisoning shortly after his departure.
Gregg is cautious when discussing the incidents, but news reports make it clear that both were the result of hostile actions with lethal chemicals.
While OPCW helped bring them to light, it is part of an international system that relies on public exposure and diplomatic pressure, with no clear means of enforcement when powerful nations like Russia and North Korea break its rules.
Even among highly qualified OPCW laboratories, some stand out.
Gregg considers LLNL to be part of the “top tier,” the best of the best for its ability to identify unknown chemicals and then synthesize a tiny sample for verification.
That does not mean they are perfect, however. Designated partner labs are tested annually to make sure their skills are current. The tests are hard, and most labs slip up at least once.
LLNL did so in 2011, when it was disqualified after receiving a substandard grade in an accreditation test. Two years later, it requalified, and has received perfect test scores since.
Partner labs like LLNL are sometimes asked to prepare samples for testing other labs, and sometimes help with evaluating other labs’ performance.
Purpose is to Kill
The Chemical Weapons Convention requires the destruction of chemical weapons and prohibits their manufacture or use. Member nations are subject to inspections to ensure compliance.
The Convention lists three kinds of chemicals, and spells out their scientific formulas, according to potential usefulness in weapons applications.
Schedule 1 chemicals can be used to make weapons, or are themselves weapons. Deadly chemicals with names like Sarin and VX, they have few if any other purposes than to kill. (Some, like a nitrogen mustard compound, have application in tiny quantities in chemotherapy.)
Schedules 2 and 3 are dual use, meaning they have genuine industrial applications, but could also be used to make weapons. Schedule 2 chemicals can be legitimate for small scale industrial use, Schedule 3 in larger quantities.
Chemicals can be combined in almost limitless ways. The technical job of identifying unknowns in a complex environment is extremely difficult -- hence the need for a variety of highly capable partner laboratories.
Looking back, Gregg finds both personal and professional satisfaction in his years leading the OPCW laboratory.
On a personal basis, he and his wife “just loved living in Europe,” he said. “It’s a whole different experience. You get a very different appreciation for the U.S., as well as for the other country.”
Professionally, the work was challenging and vital, contributing to international safety and stability. “It was extremely rewarding and I think it was a great way to end my career,” he said.