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Chemical Arms Disposal Plods On

Latest estimates of longer time and higher cost reflect conservative approach, not trouble

by Glenn Hess
June 18, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 25

Credit: U.S. Army
An aerial view of the chemical weapons disposal facility at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., shows ongoing construction.
Aerial view in May 2012 of the chemical weapons disposal facility at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., which is slightly more than halfway finished.
Credit: U.S. Army
An aerial view of the chemical weapons disposal facility at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., shows ongoing construction.

The Pentagon recently announced a further delay and higher cost in the decades-long effort to eliminate the nation’s Cold War-era chemical weapons stockpile. But that news is neither unexpected nor a sign that the program is in any trouble, say citizen watchdog groups.

It could take an additional two years—until September 2023—and cost $10.6 billion—about $2.6 billion more than previously estimated—to dispose of the remaining 10% of the U.S. arsenal. This arsenal is currently stored at sites in Colorado and Kentucky, the Department of Defense said in April (C&EN, April 30, page 9).

Under the revised timeline, work to destroy 2,611 tons of mustard blister agent held at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Pueblo County, Colo., might take until 2019. Disposal of 523 tons of mustard blister agent and sarin and VX nerve agents at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County, Ky., could take until 2023.

The U.S. chemical weapons disposal program, which began in 1990, has been slowed by political and operational issues that have forced shutdowns or postponed start-up dates of destruction facilities. The new forecasts “come as no surprise given the past two decades of continual delays and cost escalation in both the U.S. and Russian chemical weapons destruction programs,” says Paul F. Walker, director of Green Cross International’s environmental security and sustainability program.

Destroying a whole class of weapons of mass destruction has not been an easy or inexpensive task, Walker points out. He emphasizes the care that must be taken to protect workers, the public, and the environment from any serious damage.

In November 1985, Congress directed the Army to destroy the nation’s obsolete stockpile of lethal chemical weapons, a collection of rockets, mines, and bombs that had been built up during the four decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The entire project was expected to cost less than $2 billion and take about five years. But those early estimates proved to be wildly optimistic, and the mission is now expected to take more than three decades to accomplish and cost nearly $40 billion.

“U.S. chemical weapons were never designed to be dismantled and recycled. They were designed to be used, like most Cold War weapons, with little if any thought given to their end-of-life disposition,” Walker tells C&EN. The weapons have also been very dangerous to destroy: Aside from their deadly chemical agents, many of them have propellant and explosives integrated within their structure, he adds.

The Pentagon’s latest estimates include a “more conservative and realistic assessment” of potential operational problems that might occur during the complicated process of destroying the stockpiles, explains Conrad F. Whyne, executive officer of the Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program.

“Estimating costs and schedules for large, complex construction projects—which will use new processes and handle aging and dangerous materials and are subject to comprehensive regulation—involves a great deal of uncertainty, which we’ve now taken into account,” Whyne says.

Regardless, the Army will try to complete the work on a tighter schedule while respecting safety and environmental considerations, he says. The U.S. is “unwavering in its commitment to achieving 100% destruction of its chemical weapons as soon as possible” in accordance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty, Whyne remarks.

The latest projections are a “worst-case estimate,” says Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Kentucky-based coalition that monitors the Army’s destruction activities. “We don’t expect the projects to take this long or cost this much,” Williams says. “But in order to ensure the funds are there, just in case they are needed, the elongated schedule was brought forward.”

Obstacles that could cause slowdowns—and require the additional time and money—include difficulties acquiring the necessary materials, hiring qualified personnel, or dealing with unanticipated testing or equipment problems.

“Depending on a number of variables, we could see the schedule—and thus the costs—reduced significantly,” Williams says.

The U.S. was required to provide its most current schedule estimates to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by late April. Based in The Hague, the Netherlands, OPCW monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect on April 29, 1997.

Currently, 188 of the 196 countries recognized by the United Nations have joined the convention. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the treaty, whereas Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and the recently formed South Sudan remain outside the pact.

The convention prohibits member nations from developing, producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons. The aim is to ensure that the lethal materials can never be used in war or obtained by terrorists. Initially, all existing weapons stockpiles were supposed to be destroyed by April 2007. When that goal turned out to be overly ambitious, the deadline was extended to April 2012. But that goal, too, was unattainable.

Of the seven member countries that have acknowledged possessing chemical arms, only Albania, South Korea, and India have completely eliminated their stockpiles. Russia, Libya, and the U.S. are still working to finish off their arsenals, whereas Iraq has yet to start destroying a small amount of degraded chemical munitions left over from the Saddam Hussein regime.

According to OPCW, Russia has eliminated 62% of its stockpile of more than 42,000 tons of chemical agents, the world’s largest cache, and expects to complete the task by the end of 2015. Libya’s interim government plans in late 2016 to finish destroying about 14 tons of sulfur mustard agent and a supply of precursor chemicals left behind by deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi. And Iraq is still assessing its inventory and determining an appropriate disposal method for the weapons cache it declared upon joining the convention in 2009.

In the U.S., the Army announced in January that it had destroyed 90% of its total arsenal after it finished work at a site in western Utah, where it had kept its single largest stockpile. At its peak, the Deseret Chemical Depot held approximately 44% of the nation’s 31,500-ton supply of chemical agents. In addition to outdated U.S. weapons, the depot’s warfare materials included 4,100 lb of nerve agent seized by U.S. troops from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

The Army had previously completed chemical weapons destruction activities at storage facilities in Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Newport, Ind.; Aberdeen, Md.; Umatilla, Ore.; and Johnston Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean, about 750 miles west of Hawaii.

Heeding the lessons learned from work at those sites will provide the opportunity to shorten the timetable at the two remaining destruction facilities, Williams says. “It’s prudent to be conservative in this instance,” he remarks. “Better to identify resources and time that might not eventually be needed than to need them and not have them.”

Construction is well under way on the plants in Colorado and Kentucky that will complete the demilitarization job.

Credit: U.S. Army
Pallets of mustard-filled 105-mm projectiles are housed inside a chemical storage igloo awaiting destruction at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot near Pueblo, Colo.
A stack of pallets of bullet-shaped 105mm projectiles inside a storage igloo. White tags reading, “Contents Verified” adorn the corner each pallet.
Credit: U.S. Army
Pallets of mustard-filled 105-mm projectiles are housed inside a chemical storage igloo awaiting destruction at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot near Pueblo, Colo.

The facility being built at the Pueblo Chemical Depot is scheduled for completion on June 30. Over the next two years, Army contractors will be developing procedures, testing equipment, and training as many as 600 workers to use the newly devised chemical neutralization technology that will be introduced at the site. Full-scale destruction of mustard agent and 780,000 mortar rounds and artillery shells is expected to begin in early 2015. The weapons have been stored at the 23,000-acre depot since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the Blue Grass plant is scheduled to begin destroying its stockpile of nerve and blister agents held in 101,767 rockets and projectiles in 2018. Construction is slightly more than halfway finished. The depot has only 2% of the nation’s original chemical stockpile, the smallest amount at the nine U.S. storage sites.

Although the weapons held at the Colorado and Kentucky depots were expected to be among the last destroyed, the projects have been set back by budget shortfalls, major money-saving changes in plant design, and disputes over safety and environmental concerns.

In 2006, after military spending priorities had led to a drastic reduction in the budget for the chemical weapons destruction program, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld told congressional leaders that the U.S. would not meet the extended 2012 deadline for eliminating its arsenal. He predicted that only about two-thirds of the stockpile would be destroyed by April 2012.

“The fact that the U.S. has destroyed 90% of its chemical weapons stockpile by early 2012, about 50% greater than Rumsfeld’s 2006 projection, is a positive sign that the U.S. has been committed to meeting its convention obligations,” Walker says.

Although OPCW’s 41-nation executive council agreed late last year not to penalize the U.S., Russia, or Libya for missing the April deadline, it required each nation to submit detailed disposal plans, including their anticipated completion dates.

During a visit to Washington, D.C., last month, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü expressed satisfaction with the new U.S. plan after meeting with senior officials. Üzümcü commended the U.S. for its “unwavering commitment” to meet its obligations under the treaty and for its “firm resolve to overcome the many difficulties of the destruction process.”


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