RICHMOND — The public will have an opportunity on Tuesday to comment on a proposed plan to X-ray a sampling of mustard rounds at Blue Grass Army Depot.
The results of that X-raying will be used to determine whether the projectiles should be exploded inside steel vessels called "detonation chambers."
No decision has been made to explode the mustard rounds, said Jeff Brubaker, site project manager for the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant now under construction.
Army officials suspect that the normally liquid mustard agent inside the 60-year-old shells has solidified into a gel or tarlike consistency and can't be drained. They base that suspicion on some problem rounds that were found in 2008 at Toole, Utah.
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Some 65 percent of the mustard lots in the Blue Grass stockpile are identical to those in Utah. Blue Grass Army Depot has 15,492 mustard rounds.
"We're looking to determine through the X-ray analysis how much of the mustard agent has solidified," Brubaker said. "This mustard was made and filled into these rounds in the early 1940s ... It has a propensity to break down and deteriorate very quickly, so we think there has been a lot of gelling and solidification."
The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency is collecting data on the solidified residue or "heels," which can form inside the projectiles. Those heels complicate the disassembly and destruction of those weapons, and that could pose safety risks to workers involved in destroying the 155 mm projectiles.
And in some shells, the "burster," the part of the projectile that would disperse mustard agent, has adhered to the interior well, further complicating disassembly and destruction.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet must approve the X-ray work plan before it could start next year. Tuesday's hearing is part of that approval process.
The X-ray process would be done sometime in the spring or summer. The X-rays would be performed on a random sample of 96 mustard rounds.
Another 79 problem mustard rounds that had previously leaked and were "overpacked" — put into a leak-proof container — would also be X-rayed, Brubaker said.
The rounds to be X-rayed would be moved from one bunker to another before they were analyzed. After the X-ray process, they would be stored until they were eventually destroyed.
Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea-based organization that monitors weapons destruction, does not foresee a reason to oppose X-raying the mustard rounds.
"It is a reasonable thing to do to try to determine the condition of these mustard rounds before we proceed with consideration of using an alternative technology for their disposal," Williams said. "It's always prudent to know what you're up against before you start making decisions on how to deal with it, and that's what this is about."
Further state regulatory approval would be required before any decision on detonation in steel vessels, also known as "explosive destruction technology," would be made, Brubaker said.