Friday, January 20, 2012

US Passes Milestone In Destroying Chemical Weapons, But Challenges Remain

Yesterday, reports announced that the US Army had destroyed one of its largest stockpiles of chemical weapons at the Deseret Chemical Facility in Tooele, Utah. More than $3 billion had been spent dismantling and destroying the chemical weapons, the munitions, and storage facilities holding the weapons in Tooele.
The end of a 15-year project came anti-climactically yesterday afternoon — a worker, wearing coveralls and a gas mask, laid thick mats on top of 23 mustard gas mortars as they came out of an incinerator, stopping any errant gasses from escaping while they cooled.

And just like that, the mission of Deseret Chemical Depot was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The last of more than 1 million munitions was incinerated to the standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that set a deadline of April 29 of this year for all chemical weapons stockpiles to be destroyed. Since its establishment in 1942, DCD has undergone various stages of destroying the stockpile, but this latest, most earnest effort began in 1996 when the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, or TOCDF, was constructed in anticipation and fulfillment of the 1997 treaty.

“Reaching this milestone is surely a credit to the five generations of dedicated workers, the support of the community and the resolve of our nation to destroy these weapons,” said Col. Mark Pomeroy, commander of DCD.

DCD was originally named Deseret Chemical Warfare Depot upon its 1942 selection as a chemical depot. In 1962, the site was realigned under Tooele Army Depot and named the Tooele Army Depot South Area, a designation that stuck until the installation was renamed Deseret Chemical Depot in 1996. In 1979, while still under Tooele Army Depot, the Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System, or CAMDS, began operations. The disposal techniques demonstrated at CAMDS are now in use at other chemical depots, but CAMDS itself will be decontaminated, dismantled and disposed of now that the mission is complete.

The destruction of the 13,616 tons of chemical agent have required workers to make more than 24,000 chemical deliveries from storage areas of the installation to disposal and demolition facilities — all of which were conducted safely. Ted Ryba, site project manager for TOCDF, said making all operations at DCD as safe as possible was a chief goal for the project.

“Safety has been a priority for the TOCDF team since the beginning,” he said. “Safety of our workers, the surrounding community and the environment.”

The schedule for destroying the different types of chemical agents in the original stockpile is one example of the group’s focus on safety, he said. The nerve agents GB and VX were destroyed first, making the remainder of the stockpile far less of a threat.
Yet, that still leaves 10% of the declared US stockpile remaining.

Smaller stockpiles of chemical weapons are scattered at several other sites around the country, and while international treaties required the destruction by the end of April 2012, the US will miss the deadline. The US military believes that it might take until 2021 before it can declare itself to have destroyed all of its chemical weapons, munitions, precursor chemicals, and related items.

Part of the reason is the difficulty in building a facility to safely dismantle the chemical weapons, some of which date back to World War I and are in an extremely fragile state.

The US has been destroying and dismantling its chemical weapons inventory since 1986, when a pilot plant was built at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to decommission and destroy chemical weapons. That facility shut down in 2000 after destroying 6.6% of the US stockpile.

The facilities have to deal with a wide range of chemical weapons, munitions, and containment conditions, which makes the disposal and decontamination process all the more complex. One such location with chemical weapons awaiting destruction is Pueblo, Colorado, where the military will neutralize and biotreat the weapons to destroy the Pueblo chemical weapons stockpile. The Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (PCAPP), is currently under construction near the storage site.

The US isn't alone. Russia, whose stockpiles were far larger than the American weapons caches, has nearly 50% of its weapons yet to be destroyed. They're in a far more precarious state as well, and would likely need decades to complete the decommissioning and destruction of the weapons.

Libya was supposed to have destroyed all of its declared weapons, but technical problems and the civil war that led to the regime of Mumar Khadafi being toppled derailed the effort. Monitors have since returned to Libya and found that Khadafi had undeclared stockpiles of weapons, which will have to be secured and dismantled as well. As with the US, Libya will have to submit a plan and timetable for dismantling the weapons.

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