The discovery of thousands of deficient and questionable welds is unlikely to delay destruction of chemical weapons at a Madison County plant, officials said last week.
At issue are deficient welds in equipment fabricated by a subcontractor in California and then shipped to the plant at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond. The plant, which was completed last year, will destroy deadly sarin and VX nerve agents that have been stockpiled for decades at the depot.
Of the 3,855 welds under review, 1,343 or 35 percent were found to be acceptable. But as of mid-November, 260 welds required repair, 654 required X-rays and 1,598 needed further evaluation, according to information released last month.
“Weld deficiencies are common but not of this magnitude,” said Ron Hink, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the prime contractor on the plant. “This should have been detected in fabrication.”
Jeff Brubaker, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives site project manager, said the necessary time will be taken to make the repairs “because that’s extremely important for the safety of our work force and preserving the environment.”
“We have committed a significant number of resources and if we need to commit even more resources, we will in order to ensure that this remains unlikely to cause a delay in starting up the facility that will destroy the nerve agents,” Brubaker said.
1,343out of the 3,855 welds under review were found to be acceptable
While some X-rays taken in California showed weld deficiencies, others were inconclusive or lacked clarity because the film had degraded while in storage, Brubaker said.
The deficient and questionable welds were found in supporting equipment where chemical compounds will be treated in a process called “supercritical water oxidation.” After the nerve agents are chemically decomposed and neutralized, the resulting chemical compounds are subjected to very high temperatures and pressures, and broken down into carbon dioxide, water and salts.
The vessels that will actually treat those chemical compounds showed no weld problems. But questionable welds were found in the piping that will feed fluids to or away from those vessels, Brubaker said.
Stress on those welds could cause them to fail and release hazardous liquids, posing a risk to workers inside the plant. At times, the liquid in the process will be heated to just under 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass had subcontracted with General Atomics in California for the supercritical water oxidation equipment. General Atomics, in turn, subcontracted the fabrication and welding to another company in California, Hink said.
General Atomics has been cooperative and supports the investigation into the bad welds, Hink said. But he said the fabricating subcontractor has referred questions to its legal counsel. General Atomics spokeswoman Meghan Ehlke directed questions to Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass.
This should have been detected in fabrication.
Ron Hink, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass
In November, workers at the Madison County plant began disassembling some equipment so that questionable welds can be X-rayed again. A team of certified welders then began redoing some of those welds, Brubaker said.
In some cases, the welds must be redone using exotic alloys — hastelloy and inconel — that are more resistant to corrosion, and it took time to find that material.
The whole country was scoured and a supplier has been found, Hink said. But Brubaker said it takes more skill and time to weld with those alloys than with carbon steel.
Brubaker said it will take “several months” to obtain the alloys and perform the necessary repairs. “It would be complete sometime within 2016,” he said.
Welds will be verified to ensure there is not a recurrence of deficiencies, Hink said.
While litigation might be filed in regard to the issue, Brubaker said action has to be taken now so that the schedule for destruction of the weapons can be maintained. He said he did not know how much it will cost to make the repairs.
The fabricating subcontractor, whose name has not been released by Madison County officials, has received most but not all of its payment, Hink said. He said he did not know “off the top of my head” how much the fabricating company was to be paid.
The initial problems with some welds were discovered in 2013 and additional problems were confirmed in the summer of 2014.
The initial problems with some stainless steel welds performed by the same subcontractor were discovered in 2013 and additional problems were confirmed in the summer of 2014, Brubaker said. The problems were not made public until December, during a quarterly meeting of citizens, Army and government officials in Richmond.
Asked why it took until then to publicly acknowledge the weld problems, Brubaker said: “We wanted to present as much data as we could, but we also wanted to be able to reassure the stakeholders that we had a capability to make these repairs in-house, which we clearly do. But by doing it in-house, it’s not going to be a quick process, because in some cases we have to remove other hardware or components to gain access to these areas.”
Brubaker said he is glad that construction workers at the plant discovered the initial problems and reported them. That reporting means repairs can get underway and be completed before the plant begins destroying nerve agent in 2020. It will take until 2023 before all the weapons have been destroyed. The welds under review only occur in the main plant that will destroy nerve agent.
Mustard or blister agent will be destroyed through another process that is scheduled to start in 2017. The weld problems do not affect that process.
If there is good news to be found in this situation, it is that it was discovered before the plant began operations, said Craig Williams of Berea, co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, a subcommittee of local leaders.
“The bad news is they found it at all because it shouldn’t be like that,” Williams said. But he added, “I’m confident that they will work the problem and they will solve the problem.”
Jon Maybriar, assistant director for the state Division of Waste Management, said he and others with the state received a briefing on the welds from officials associated with the plant.
“They have told us they will be able to handle the inspection, and if necessary, the re-fabrication of the welds in-house,” Maybriar said. “They’re confident, and we are, too, that they are going to be able to do that. But what we are a little bit worried about, because of the number of welds that need to be reinspected, is the delay to the project. … We’re OK with that as long as the welds are inspected and fixed correctly.”