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Worker safety propels explosive idea for Madison depot

Worker safety and international diplomacy are two primary reasons the Army proposes to explode some chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.

The weapons wouldn't be exploded in the open, but inside steel vessels called "detonation chambers" that destroy them with heat or explosive charges.

The Army maintains that exploding the mustard rounds will not affect the construction or start-up of the pilot plant at Blue Grass. That plant will be used to destroy the majority of the 523 tons of weapons stockpiled in Madison County. It will still use a two-step destruction process involving neutralization of the toxic agents followed by treatment of the liquid wastes.

So why bring up the issue?

In 2008, the agency responsible for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles in Kentucky and Colorado noted there were problems with some of the mustard projectiles in Tooele, Utah, where they were to be incinerated.

The normally liquid mustard agent inside the 60-year-old artillery shells had solidified into a gel or tarlike consistency and could not be drained. In addition, workers couldn't remove the explosive element in each shell, known as the "burster."

Had they been used in combat, the 155mm shells would have been fired from cannons or howitzers. The burster causes the shell to explode and disperse the mustard agent, which causes chemical blistering of the skin.

But in the Utah mustard rounds, the outer skin of the burster adhered to the inner skin of the burster well, much like the over-baked bottom of brownies sticks to an oven pan.

"Over time, the burster has essentially become glued in place," said Jeff Brubaker, site project manager for the pilot plant at Blue Grass.

That's a problem because each round must be taken apart before it is destroyed, and that disassembly is fraught with danger, said Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the Berea-based organization that monitors weapons destruction.

"You're going to have to send two or three guys in to try to pull these bursters out of there," Williams said. "Every time you do it, there's a chance one of those things might explode. That's not a reasonable risk."

The problems encountered in Utah might foreshadow similar problems in Madison County. That's because 65 percent of the mustard lots in the Blue Grass stockpile are identical to those in Utah.

Blue Grass has 15,492 mustard rounds, and 76 are listed as problem rounds that have leaked and could not be disassembled. The number of problem rounds is expected to grow considerably, given the identical manufacturing lot numbers seen in Blue Grass and Utah.

As an alternative, Army officials suggest the use of "explosive destruction technology," which would not require the disassembly of munitions.

In addition, detonating certain weapons arose because there are two potential gaps in the program to destroy chemical weapons in the United States. This is where international diplomacy enters as a factor.

The United States is obligated to dispose of its weapons stockpile by 2012 under the terms of the International Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, but the government has acknowledged that the deadline will not be met.

Under an estimated schedule, incineration of weapons would end in January 2012 at Utah and Alabama. Meanwhile, Pueblo, Colo., would not start destroying its weapons until January 2015.

Another gap would happen from December 2017, when the destruction of weapons would finish at Pueblo, until October 2018, when the pilot plant at Blue Grass would begin destruction of its weapons.

The U.S. State Department and National Security Council are concerned about these lapses and how they will be received by other countries that are parties to the treaty.

To bridge those gaps, the Army recommended last year using the explosive destruction technology to demonstrate the United States is serious about the continuous disposal of its weapons.

Furthermore, the Army says its ability to meet public and congressional demands to destroy all of the chemical weapons would be enhanced by the selection and acquisition of explosive-destruction technology to "augment" the plants at Blue Grass and Pueblo.

"The recommendation has been made. No final decision has been made," Brubaker said. "And obviously, in order to do this, we would have to comply with all" the state and federal permitting requirements.

The Army is considering four types of technology: three from private-sector vendors and a fourth developed by the Army. The private-sector technologies have been used to destroy mustard in Belgium, Japan and Germany. Whatever method is chosen, the equipment would be put near the pilot plant under construction; a map published late last year showed a potential site north of the pilot plant.

"No decision on the exact siting has been made yet," Brubaker said.

Last year, the National Research Council issued a report that examined the technologies and found them to be safe. It did not field-test any of the technologies on its own, but the council expressed confidence that they could meet all U.S. regulatory requirements.

But there are other complicating factors that make the discussion about exploding weapons even thornier.

Initially only "problem" mustard rounds that had leaked were proposed as candidates for detonation.

Later, the Army said it potentially save eight months of destruction time at the pilot plant if all the mustard rounds could be destroyed by detonation.

In addition, the non-contaminated propellant parts of rockets at Blue Grass were suggested as candidates to be blown up.

And finally, there has been discussion of destroying some GB and VX nerve agents with detonation technology.

That led the Kentucky Citizens' Advisory Commission, the governor-appointed link between the community and the Army, and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, an independent subcommittee of the CAC, to write a letter in mid-December staking out positions on these ideas.

They did not oppose, in principle, the use of detonation chambers to dispose of "problem" or leaking mustard munitions at the depot. They reserved their endorsement of any specific technology until there is "adequate demonstration" of the capability and environmental compliance of any such approach.

They "unequivocally" opposed the use of any such technology for the destruction of nerve agents, but reserved a final recommendation on nerve agent munitions found to be in a condition not suitable for processing at the pilot plant, or for which "unacceptable human risk would be expected," until more technical and environmental data is presented.

The letter noted there was not consensus among the voting members about these recommendations. From his point of view, Williams said, "It's not reasonable to trade someone's well-being when there's an alternative that doesn't put them at risk."

Determining the number of "problem" munitions at Blue Grass will be the subject of an assessment to begin later this year.

Sophisticated technology that can peek into shells like an X-ray will assess the condition of the mustard munitions in Madison County. The goal is to complete that assessment next year.

And a host of other questions remains to be answered. Among them: How much will it cost? How quickly could the technology be deployed? How will secondary wastes be handled?

"It's important for people to understand that we have time to perform due diligence on all of these issues and answer all of these questions," Williams said.

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