Weapons destruction plant at Richmond depot almost half done

Richmond Project hit milestone in 2011

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 26, 2011 

RICHMOND — The destruction of chemical weapons was completed in 2011 in Anniston, Ala., and Umatilla, Ore. Meanwhile, construction continues on a pilot plant in Madison County that will begin to destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons in about five years.

Construction of the plant at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond is 45 percent complete. The plant won't be finished until 2016, and destruction of the 523 tons of weapons won't be finished until 2021, according to current schedules.

A major milestone in the plant's construction came in October when workers finished installing the vessels that will neutralize the chemical agents and explosive components inside the World War II-era rockets and projectiles.

The vessels, or reactors — not to be confused with nuclear reactors — are the heart of the pilot plant. Two 3-ton reactors will neutralize the chemical agents, and three 6-ton energetics reactors will neutralize the warheads, bursters and propellants.

The focus of construction in 2011 shifted from building the structure and external coverings to internal work. Piping, wiring, interior studs and drywall, and fire- suppression and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning work continued in the site's main buildings.

The project will have roughly 7 million feet of electrical wiring (or 1,326 miles, almost the distance from Lexington to Santa Fe., N.M.), reporters were told during an August tour of the plant site.

"We've had good progress over the last 12 months," site project manager Jeff Brubaker said at a Dec. 13 public meeting in Richmond.

Meanwhile, it appears increasingly likely — although no final decision has been made — that the 155mm mustard projectiles stored at the depot will be destroyed in a different manner than the nerve agents.

A decision probably will come in 2012 to explode the 15,000 rounds of mustard or blister agent inside steel detonation chambers. Ninety-six mustard rounds X-rayed in May and June all had some level of solidification of the blister agent.

That solidification at other facilities in the United States has led to complications and delays in the destruction process. And trying to remove the solidified agent poses a greater risk to workers than just exploding the rounds in steel vessels.

The Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission, a local group that meets periodically to discuss the progress of the plan to destroy chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot, is supposed to make a recommendation by the end of January on the explosive detonation of the mustard rounds.

The depot was completed in 1942. The first mustard or blister weapons arrived there in 1944, while the nerve-agent weapons came from 1962 to 1966. (Contrary to popular belief, no nuclear weapons are at the depot.)

All 101,767 of those rockets and projectiles are stored in 44 earth-covered bunkers called igloos. That so-called Chemical Limited Area composes 250 acres of the 15,000-acre depot. The depot has only 2 percent of the nation's original chemical stockpile, the smallest amount of nine storage sites.

Six of those sites have destroyed their munitions: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Tooele, Utah, will finish next year, and Pueblo, Colo., won't be done until 2017.

Richmond will be the last site to destroy its stockpile.

Recognizing progress

In June, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the government agency that oversees the destruction of stockpiles in Madison County and Pueblo, Colo., successfully completed a six-month congressional review initiated because its cost had exceeded previous estimates by 25 percent.

The Defense Department recertified the program, in part because it was deemed critical to national security and there were no alternatives to do the job at less cost. The estimated cost to destroy the chemical weapons in Madison County and Colorado is now more than $10 billion.

The total "life-cycle cost" of the Bluegrass pilot plant alone — from initial design in 2003-04 to closure in 2024 — went from $3.6 billion to $4.5 billion. The total capital cost of the plant alone will be about $1.5 billion, Brubaker said.

Also in June, the depot was found to be in full compliance with the international treaty in regard to storage of its chemical weapons. It was the 15th inspection by an international team since 1997.

In mid-November, the pilot plant earned one of the highest recognitions for a worker-safety program. The plant received Voluntary Protection Program Star Status certification from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The national recognition capped an 18-month process that included a rigorous assessment of the construction site headed by Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the contractor on the pilot plant.

In late November, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted 101-1 to approve a measure that will not penalize the United States for missing an April 29, 2012, deadline for the destruction of its nerve and blister agents. Iran was the lone "no" vote. The vote took place at The Hague, Netherlands, where the organization is headquartered.

The deadline was imposed by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty.

By the end of November, the construction project had a total employment of 913. That figure included about 750 workers at the Madison County site, while the others are manufacturing components in Pasco, Wash.; San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; and Frederick, Md.

'A huge resource'

The plant's economic impact has been considerable. Nearly $77 million has been spent with Kentucky companies on the project, and $45.8 million has been spent in Madison and surrounding counties, Brubaker said.

The local payroll has totaled $210 million, and an additional $400 million is to be paid for the remainder of the project through closure, Brubaker said.

Reuse of the plant once the chemical weapons have been destroyed is already a topic of discussion. A citizens' "economic development working group" is examining potential uses of the pilot plant. The group hopes to secure funding in 2012 for a study that would look at the plant's infrastructure and human resources that could be used after the munitions have been destroyed, said Craig Williams, co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board.

"We've got all these engineers, experts in environmental safety, all this coming into this region to do this project," he said. "When the project is over, if there's not some kind of plan to try to keep them here, they're going to leave. That's a huge resource. It's a boom-and-bust scenario, and that's what we're trying to avoid."

Money for the study might be a mix of federal, state and local funds, and its cost will vary depending on whether a private contractor or a university group does the study. The first phase of the study would try to identify what the plant might be used for; a second phase would look at how to attract businesses that could use the people already in place. It might take two years to complete the study, Williams said.

Any decision on reuse of the pilot plant would be up to state and Army officials.

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