In March, the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado began destroying the United States' largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons, leaving Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond holding the remaining chemical agent stockpile. Although only one-fifth the size of Pueblo, the Kentucky site has a larger variety of chemical weapons, including nerve agent.
Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass holds the Defense Department contract to design, build, systemize, test, operate and close a facility to destroy these weapons. Tom Martin talked with the man responsible for overseeing that chain of events and its aftermath, site project manager, Jeff Brubaker.
Martin: What weapons are to be destroyed?
Brubaker: They generally fall in to one of two classifications: nerve agent-filled weapons which consist of a combination of rockets and artillery projectiles filled with either GB nerve agent, sometimes referred to as sarin, or VX nerve agent. The second class of weapon would be artillery projectiles that are filled with mustard agent that dates back to the second World War.
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Martin: They can have pretty nasty effects, can't they?
Brubaker: They can. The nerve agents generally work by interfering with the signals that the nervous system sends from the brain to various organs and muscles within the body. Larger doses of nerve agent can result in death within just a few minutes.
Mustard agents can also in very large doses cause death, but they primarily are thought of for the physical deterioration that they produce to the body. They result in blistering to the skin and then they also cause damage to various types of mucus membranes, the respiratory system.
Martin: And are these weapons now safely contained?
Brubaker: Yes. They are very safely contained and stored. All of the munitions are stored in earth-covered bunkers which we refer to as igloos. Each of those igloos is contained within a high-security area. Each of those igloos is required to be sampled through air monitoring on a weekly basis. That's a process where the Army goes to each of the igloo structures, connects very precise instruments that are looking for extremely low levels of agent release into the atmosphere. It's very unlikely that that would occur inside the igloos but should a low level detection of agent occur inside an igloo, the army would follow procedure to place a carbon filter on the exhaust of the igloo to ensure that no agent escapes containment.
Martin: Does that ever happen?
Brubaker: No agent has ever escaped the containment. There have been some low level readings inside an igloo. There's a very strict procedure that is followed to enter the igloo in protective clothing to isolate the particular item that has released just a very small quantity of agent, vapor and then to containerize or overpack that item into a sealed container.
Martin: Where are you now on plant construction?
Brubaker: We're pursuing two paths to destroy the stockpile. And those paths are dependent upon the type of chemical agent that's involved. For the mustard munitions, we know from testing performed a couple of years ago using high-powered x-ray technology that the agent within those weapons has turned to a solid or jelled material in 70-plus years of storage. That would be virtually impossible to process in the main facility that's being constructed. So, for those mustard munitions — there're about 15,000 total — those will be processed in a technology called a "static detonation chamber" — an explosive-proof chamber where munitions either singularly or perhaps up to two at a time are introduced into a chamber that's heated to a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. And that heating causes the munition to either detonate or deflagrate. The combination of the explosive force and the high temperature destroys the agent. Any vapor and air from the detonation chamber is further processed by a thermal oxidizer and a pollution abatement system to ensure that any organic compounds are captured and destroyed before releasing the air back to the environment.
Martin: When will you start testing the actual processing of the nerve agent? And are you confident that your process will work?
Brubaker: For the nerve agents, we will be processing them in our main facility which is a neutralization technology that has been demonstrated at some previous sites processing the same chemical agent. So, we have a high confidence that the process will work.
Neutralization is the process of taking a known quantity of chemical agent, in this case either GB or VX nerve agent, and mixing it with water and sodium hydroxide heated to temperatures ranging from 165 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
During that mixing process, there is also rapid mixing and agitation that occurs inside the reactor vessel. So, over some 2 to 3 hours, that reaction destroys the chemical agent. We can verify that by taking a sample from the reactor vessel and then taking that sample to our onsite laboratory where we confirm the agent has been destroyed.
Martin: When exactly do you think that process is going to begin?
Brubaker: We know that our first agent destruction will be the mustard munitions. That will occur beginning in 2017, although in a smaller separate explosive-based technology. For the nerve agents, we are working towards beginning destruction in 2020. However, if things continue to move forward favorably with the remainder of construction which we believe we will complete later this year, followed by our testing phase, it is not inconceivable that we could actually start destroying the nerve agents perhaps one to two years sooner than 2020.
Martin: What are some examples of local engagement?
Brubaker: The project has teamed at various levels with small businesses in the local community. They provide things from materials that support construction to larger assemblies such as heaters, pumps, all the way up to, in at least one case, a complete system: our energetic neutralization reactors that neutralize and destroy the explosive components that are removed from the munitions.
Additionally, about 60 percent of our non-construction workforce has been hired from Central Kentucky. And as we move forward with both the explosive destruction technology for the mustard munitions, as well as the neutralization process for the nerve agent munitions, we will have more opportunities to hire more folks locally. We will have to hire about 700 total personnel to support either plant operations or maintenance. Both of those departments will be staffed 24/7 during operations. As well as our laboratory. And we have already begun the process of working with some of the local universities: University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University and some of the other universities in Central Kentucky to recruit for the laboratory.
Martin: Do you have an estimate of how many people will be employed?
Brubaker: Yes. In total, we'll be looking at about 1,100 total personnel, of which about 700 will be plant personnel that will be divided between four operating shifts so that we can maintain continual around-the-clock operations.
Martin: And of course, everybody knows going into it that the plant will eventually close. When do you foresee that happening?
Brubaker: It'll take about four years to destroy the combined mustard-nerve agent stockpile. So, once that is complete and the last agent is successfully destroyed, the project will go into its final phase which we call "closure." Closure is a process of cleaning up, decontaminating and for some areas of the plant, the complete demolition and removal of those portions of the facility. For other areas of the plant that were not contaminated and there are, you know, many other buildings as well as a large utility infrastructure that has been put in place for this project, there is the potential that some or all of that could be reused in the future. Those decisions have not yet been reached. Any such decision would be reached between the Department of the Army and the Governor of Kentucky. A local working group called the Economic Development Working Group is already asking questions pertaining to potential reuse. They're also interested in exploring the capabilities of the almost 1,100 employees and what potential skills and future work those personnel may be able to bring to the area.
Martin: Are you on budget and on schedule?
Brubaker: I'm happy to say yes, we are. And we are on schedule. In fact, we are actually ahead of schedule for the main plant. We will complete construction later this year and that's a solid year ahead of the baseline plan.