Madison County

Design change would eliminate a step in destruction of chemical weapons at depot

The explosive containment vestibule inside the Munitions Demilitarization Building at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Demilitarization Pilot Plant near Richmond includes a rocket-cutting machine. No humans will be in this area once the plant is in operation.
The explosive containment vestibule inside the Munitions Demilitarization Building at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent Demilitarization Pilot Plant near Richmond includes a rocket-cutting machine. No humans will be in this area once the plant is in operation. Herald-Leader

RICHMOND — The prime contractor building the plant that will destroy chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot has recommended a design change that will eliminate a step in that complex process.

The design change was made public Tuesday during the quarterly meeting of two citizens' groups to discuss issues surrounding construction of the plant, which is 90 percent complete. Some group members were briefed before Tuesday.

The change suggested by prime contractor Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass will keep the overall destruction process as planned, but would eliminate what's known as the "washout" step of the agent-draining portion of rockets and projectiles containing GB (sarin) and VX nerve agents.

In a draft response to the government, the Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board said they agreed with eliminating the washout for rockets, but they wanted more information about removing that step for projectiles.

The destruction process for rockets and projectiles involves draining nerve agents and flushing the interiors with high-pressure water.

But testing found complications with the original design, said John Barton, chief scientist for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass.

For example, water mixed with VX can form a gel that causes complications with pumping during subsequent disposal steps. Water mixed with GB can create hydrofluoric acid, which leads to corrosion of pipes.

Eliminating the washout step will allow for better control of the destruction process, Barton said.

But more importantly, the destruction process "will be safer for our operators, and we will be reducing the number of entries that an average worker has to make into a toxic area," Barton said.

"Fewer entries for our workers means a much lower chance that they will ever be exposed to agent," Barton said.

The citizens groups agree with eliminating the washout for rockets because subsequent steps will destroy the nerve agents. But the operating details for agent destruction is less certain with projectiles, hence the desire for more information.

The final decision on eliminating the washout process will be made by Conrad Whyne, program executive officer for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, which oversees destruction of weapons in Kentucky and Colorado.

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