RICHMOND — 2015 will be a milestone year for the plant that will destroy chemical weapons at Blue Grass Army Depot.
Construction of the plant, which is actually a complex of about a dozen buildings, should be finished by the end of 2015. But it will take another four years of equipment testing before the first weapons with deadly GB (sarin) and VX nerve agents will be destroyed in 2020.
"I can envision that the plant will easily process more than 10,000 simulated weapons before we actually bring the first real chemical rocket or projectile into the plant," said Site Project Manager Jeff Brubaker. "That's how complete and how thorough we want to be."
In December, construction of the plant was 90 percent complete and the testing of various systems was 25 percent complete. A $1.1 trillion spending bill signed by President Obama on Dec. 16 provides full funding to complete construction.
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Site preparation and preliminary construction began in 2006 but it wasn't until the summer of 2009 that the first vertical steel was put into place.
Early in 2014, two huge exhaust stacks were erected outside the Munitions Demilitarization Building, or MDB, the place where the chemical weapons will be disassembled and where the explosives and chemical agent will be removed and neutralized. The 120-foot-tall stacks will release clean air back to the atmosphere during future plant operations.
The MDB will be equipped with a "cascading ventilation system." During plant operations, the building will be maintained under a slight vacuum with fresh air continually drawn into the building. The air can only return to the atmosphere after passing through a series of carbon filters that scrub air as it passes through the multiple carbon banks in each filter unit.
A monitoring system between the carbon banks and the exhaust stacks will ensure that the air released back into the environment is free of agent.
The total cost of the destruction plant, from design to operations to eventual closure, is $5.3 billion, Brubaker said. The last weapons are scheduled to be destroyed in 2023, although some think the operation will be finished before then.
The staffing in Richmond is now at a peak of 1,580 people, and almost half of those are in construction trades, said Doug Omichinski, project manager for prime contractor Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass. More than 300 electricians are involved in the project, and by the time the plant is finished, enough electrical cable will have been installed to stretch from Richmond to Ocala, Fla., Omichinski said.
When operations begin, the plant will employ about 1,000 people.
Just south of the chemical-destruction plant, site preparation has begun at the site where mustard-agent rounds will be exploded inside a steel detonation chamber.
The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection gave temporary authorization in August for that work to begin. The authorization allows installation of utilities and construction of a support building and a control room building.
Detonation of the mustard rounds is necessary because X-rays confirmed in 2011 that there was solidification of agent in a significant number of 155mm projectiles. That renders them unsuitable for robotic disassembly and processing in the pilot plant. Trying to remove the mustard agent by hand poses a greater risk to workers than exploding the rounds in the steel vessel.
Destruction of the more than 15,000 mustard rounds is projected to start in March 2017 and finish by the end of that year, Brubaker said.
In December, Bechtel Parsons recommended a design change that would eliminate a step in the destruction process in which rockets and projectiles are flushed with high-pressure water.
Eliminating the "washout" step will allow for better control of the destruction process and will mean greater safety for plant operators, said Dr. John Barton, chief scientist for Bechtel Parsons.
Local citizens' groups indicated in a draft response that they agree with eliminating the washout step for rockets, but have sought more information in regard to eliminating the step for projectiles. A final decision on whether to eliminate the step might come by late January 2015, Brubaker said.
In May, Blue Grass Chemical Activity at the depot finished removal of the propellant sections of 42 nerve-agent rockets. The Army wanted to test and verify the stability of the propellants so it can determine whether the destruction of other motor sections should be done at the plant or elsewhere at the depot. Twenty-three motor sections were shipped to the Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., for analysis and testing. The other 19 rocket motors were placed into storage at the depot for future testing.
Brubaker said in December that the results of testing have not come back from Picatinny arsenal.
"I would expect we would receive that report in the next 30 to 60 days," Brubaker said.
One of the most significant things in 2014 to happen for weapons destruction didn't happen in Madison County but in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13. That's when Sen. Mitch McConnell was elected majority leader of the U.S. Senate. He will assume that position in 2015.
In his memoir published in January 2014, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates wrote that whenever he encountered McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator always wanted to "make sure a chemical weapons disposal plant in his state was fully funded."
McConnell's ascension to majority leader can only help the completion of all that's needed to destroy chemical weapons, said Craig Williams, chemical weapons project director for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.
McConnell is "someone who has a long track record of engagement and influence, and his influence now is heightened," Williams said. "That leads me to the conclusion that it will be helpful in ensuring that this program continues, that it continues at an accelerated level of progress, and it's just going to add weight to the importance of this project."
Another person who might bode well for the destruction of chemical weapons is Ashton Carter, the former second-in-command at the Pentagon who is President Obama's choice to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
From April 2009 to October 2011, Carter served as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. In that role he was over the Army's chemical-weapons destruction program.
"He's more familiar with this project than Chuck Hagel was," Williams said. "Hagel was made aware of it but it was not something that he dealt with hands-on. (Ashton's) familiarity with the program will be an advantage to us."
On another front, local officials continue to plan for a day when the chemical weapons are gone, and to ensure that the depot remains a viable employer.
Other weapons-destruction sites around the country have seen workforce reductions after they completed their task. Williams and others are trying to find money for studies that will look at the pilot plant's economic impact and how the plant might be "re-purposed" for other uses.