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NRC Urges Better Monitoring of Stored Arms

February 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 7

The Army has been monitoring its aging stockpile of chemical weapons for leaks for 30 years, yet a recent study by the National Research Council urges improvements to protect the environment, workers, and adjacent communities. More than 3 million sarin-, VX-, and mustard gas-filled weapons are stored at eight U.S. sites and are being or will be destroyed.

Three decades of monitoring has resulted in a massive amount of data, but the Army has mismanaged much of the collected information, the NRC committee finds. Scarce or missing is information on the age of leaking munitions and the temperature at which the weapons are stored. Leaks may increase with temperature and with aging, the committee warns. It recommends that the Army "improve its handling of the data and analyze it for trends in leak developments and other anomalies."

The Army's monitoring program has focused on sarin-filled weapons that are prone to leak. But the NRC committee cites its concern for the Army's less vigilant efforts in monitoring leaks of mustard gas- and VX-filled munitions. Levels of stabilizers in VX weapons may be dropping to very low levels, leading to increased leakage rates.

Another hazard the committee cites is the buildup of pressurized hydrogen in weapons as mustard gas degrades. It calls on the Army to take steps to minimize this risk.

Risk from ongoing degradation of stored weapons is minor now, but degradation will only continue, cautions committee Chairman Peter B. Lederman. So, the retired New Jersey Institute of Technology professor says, swiftly destroying the weapons "is ultimately the only effective way to reduce risks to the public."


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