RICHMOND — Workers began X-raying a random sample of 155mm mustard rounds Monday at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County.
"Safety is our number one priority," said Lt. Col. Steven Basso, commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity, the chemical weapons operation at the depot. "We are not going to do anything that's going to put anybody, civilians or workers, at risk."
The results of the X-rays will be used to determine whether the projectiles should be exploded inside steel detonation chambers at some later date.
No decision has been made to explode the mustard rounds, Basso said.
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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 found in 2008 at Tooele Army Depot in Utah.
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, and that represents about 181,000 pounds of mustard agent, said Anthony Reed, deputy site project manager for the pilot plant under construction.
If the rounds have solidified, that would pose safety risks to workers at the pilot plant that eventually will destroy the chemical weapons at the depot. And that would affect the time line for destruction of the weapons because the plant will be set up for an automated process.
"If we find that there is solidification in these rounds, at that point we will have a different path forward to consider," Reed said. By that he meant the possible detonation of the mustard rounds in steel containers, an option selected at weapons-destruction sites in Utah and Anniston, Ala.
In January, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet approved a plan to X-ray a sample of 96 mustard rounds, Basso said.
The X-ray operation is scheduled to be finished by the end of June. If everything stays on schedule, a report on the X-ray assessment might be released in mid- to late July, Basso said.
A random sampling of rounds was moved earlier this year. Each round was "overpacked," or put into a leakproof container, then moved to the igloo where they will be X-rayed.
Workers go inside an igloo and move each round to an X-ray machine in that igloo, Basso said. The workers then leave the igloo, and the round is X-rayed. It takes about five minutes to perform each X-ray shot, and more than one shot is done on each round. Once the photos are found to be satisfactory, the workers put that round back into the stack and prepare another round for X-raying.
"It's a lengthy process," Basso said. "All my personnel are wearing personal protective equipment. It's not like going to your doctor and lying down on the X-ray table and then walking out."
About six to eight rounds can be X-rayed in a single day.
Even if there happened to be a leak, the leak would not leave the igloo, Basso said. So crews working with the rounds, construction workers at the pilot plant and any residents in surrounding counties are not at risk, he said.
The pilot plant is 32 percent complete as of last week and is on schedule, Reed said. The plant won't be finished until 2016, and chemical weapons won't be destroyed there until 2018 under the current time line.