Ron Hink on chemical weapons destruction in Madison County
Ron Hink is no stranger to supervising workers in potentially dangerous situations.
This fall, Hink, 53, became the project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the prime contractor that will oversee the destruction of 523 tons of chemical weapons in Madison County.
During his 29-year career he has overseen the destruction of mustard agent in Maryland and the demolition of a uranium-enrichment building at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Hink came to Richmond after spending two years at Chernobyl, Ukraine, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant.
The 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire spewed radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,200 square miles of the then-Soviet Union and Europe. Hink went there in 2013 as part of Bechtel’s team monitoring construction of a gigantic arched structure that will slide over the remnants of the exploded reactor and its sarcophagus, the concrete-and-steel crypt built after the accident.
Hink called his time at Chernobyl “a culturally enriching experience,” not only because it was in a foreign country but because French, Ukrainian and Russian workers were on site.
“The team that’s back there I miss,” he said. “You can’t go through something like that and not grow really fond of them. The project itself: Fascinating. The area: Incredibly challenging to live in.”
Hink and Bechtel’s job was to ensure that the French contractor fulfilled the obligations of its construction contract. Some 220 people reported to him: 20 U.S. and British workers plus 200 Ukrainians.
Hink was also responsible for ensuring that there was no corruption in a part of the world “where corruption is a way of business.”
Ukraine fortified their border and there were soldiers with shoulder-fired rockets walking around, and tanks and personnel carriers out in the forest that we could see every day driving to work.
He would commute to Chernobyl from Slavutych, a city of about 25,000 people that was built to house many of the workers involved in the construction project. A third of Slavutych’s inhabitants are younger than 18 years old.
“There are a lot of young kids there who know about the accident, obviously, but who didn’t experience it,” Hink said. “They’re exposed to a lot of the cultural aspects because of all the foreigners that most of the country doesn’t even see. They’re very friendly and tolerant of us who don’t speak their language and who are slow to learn it. It’s not an easy language to learn.”
Hink learned some Ukrainian and Russian, and he said most people at Chernobyl speak a little of both.
He was there during the time when Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, had weeks of demonstrations that led to the expulsion of its president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval, Russia occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea.
“When the fighting broke out in the east, that was a concern,” Hink said. “Ukraine fortified their border and there were soldiers with shoulder-fired rockets walking around, and tanks and personnel carriers out in the forest that we could see every day driving to work. …So for a while there, we were quite anxious.
“We were evacuated for a couple of weeks at the very beginning of that, to London. We spent two weeks working out of a hotel in London.”
The tensions were evident on the Chernobyl job site, too, where Ukrainians and Russians worked.
“You couldn’t really pick sides because you’ve got Ukrainians and Russians working side by side and we needed to be as neutral as we could be,” Hink added. “They had lively discussions. You could hear these conversations in the hall. I just told my team, ‘Don’t engage in that. Don’t offer your opinion. I know you have one but they shouldn’t know or worry about where we stand.’”
Perhaps one of the most unexpected aspects about Chernobyl is that Pripyat, the city of 50,000 that was quickly abandoned in the wake of the 1986 explosion, now draws tourists from all over the world. Hink has been through that ghostly city.
“It’s hard to leave there without a real heavy heart,” he said. “You could see the kindergarten where the toys are still on the floor. Kids just left them when they were evacuated. …Now it’s pretty overgrown. A lot of trees are taking it back. But it was a large, beautiful city in its day.”
Hink worked at nuclear power plants in Arizona and Texas, and said he is still a proponent of nuclear energy.
“I think it’s a clean power source that needs to be respected, certainly, but it can be done,” he said. “But for that industry to be successful … you’ve got to figure out a way to process, treat or deal with this waste.”
Hink did two previous stints in Madison County, but his primary preparation for the destruction of chemical weapons came through his 1999-2006 assignment as a project engineering manager and plant manager for a disposal facility in Aberdeen, Md. That site safely destroyed 1,817 containers of mustard agent three years ahead of schedule. Destruction of the bulk containers was accelerated there in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
I think it’s a clean power source that needs to be respected, certainly, but it can be done. But for that industry to be successful … you’ve got to figure out a way to process, treat or deal with this waste.
Ron Hink on nuclear energy
“They looked at all this bulk mustard just stacked up in the yard, and they never postulated a jet crashing into that and all that material and all that fuel and all that heat dispersing mustard,” Hink said.
Mustard is called a “blister agent” because it causes blisters on the skin, scars on the eyes and inflammation in the airways. (Contrary to popular belief, mustard is not a gas but a liquid. When stored for a long time, it becomes thick and sludge-like. Mustard has been stored at Blue Grass Army Depot since the 1940s.)
The mustard stored in Maryland was in steel tanks that were 7 to 8 feet long and 20 inches in diameter, Hink said. Unlike the Maryland stockpile, the mustard stored in Madison County is in more than 15,000 projectiles; the deadly nerve agents stored there are in projectiles, rockets and rocket warheads. Because it is weaponized, the Kentucky stockpile is more complicated to destroy.
“You have to build a lot more structure to protect people and property,” Hink said.
Today he lives in Richmond with his wife Yvonne, who goes by “Bunny.” They have three grown sons.
The weapons in Madison County are scheduled to be fully destroyed by 2023. Hink doesn’t know whether he will be called to take an assignment elsewhere or if he will see the destruction of weapons to completion.
Whatever the case, Hink said he finds these jobs to be rewarding “because there’s a direct benefit to the community for what we do.”