By Leanne Quinn
The Department of Defense program responsible for clearing the last remnants of the US chemical weapons arsenal reached a milestone in April when it completed the destruction of the government’s stockpile of deadly VX agent at a facility in Kentucky. The program is now seeking regulatory approval for a new plan to accelerate destruction activities at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado.
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the United States is committed to eliminating its chemical weapons by September 2023. That goal was advanced when the Department of Defense’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program destroyed the last M55 missile carrying the VX nerve agent at the Blue Grass chemical warfare destruction pilot facility in Richmond, Kentucky on April 19. The program’s proposed plan to expedite destruction operations at the Colorado facility seeks to counter slow ammunition processing rates that could make it difficult to meet the CWC deadline for the destruction of all US chemical weapons.
Originally, the Blue Grass plant stored more than 523 tons of mustard and nerve gas in rockets and projectiles. The April milestone marked the complete destruction of the US VX arsenal and the completion of four of five campaigns of destruction at the Kentucky facility. The final campaign will undertake the destruction of the remaining 277 tons of GB nerve agent in M55 missiles.
The Colorado site employs multiple engineering methods to destroy chemical munitions and agents stored at the nearby Pueblo Army Depot. Since operations began in September 2016, the site has destroyed 2,255 tons of the 2,600 tons of various chemical munitions originally stored at the depot.
At a public meeting of the Colorado Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission on April 27, Walton Levi, project manager at the Pueblo site, announced the possibility of speeding
Increase destruction by processing some of the 4.2-inch mortar shells in the main plant, in addition to three static destruction chambers.
“We can walk [4.2-inch mortar rounds] in the main work. This gives us greater confidence that we will meet the contract deadline,” Levi said. But he said the plan has yet to be officially approved and approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
According to the Pentagon‘s program office, the Colorado stockpile originally consisted of three types of chemical munitions: 155mm and 105mm projectiles and 4.2-inch mortar shells, all of which contained mustard agents. The pilot plant used neutralization followed by biotreatment to destroy the majority of their 155mm and 105mm projectiles. A limited number of problematic munitions were destroyed in blast chambers. Destruction of the 155mm weapons was completed in September 2020 and program officials estimate that the 105mm projectile destruction campaign will be completed in July.
The majority of 4.2-inch mortar shells were originally intended to be eliminated by three static detonation chambers that use thermal heating to detonate or detonate ammunition, mustard agents, and explosive components. The trial fire tests were completed on May 13, and according to John Jackson, associate plant manager for static destruction chambers, the site “will continue to operate [4.2-inch mortar rounds] 50 percent on one [static destruction chambers] unit at a time.” Nearly 2,000 mortar shells were destroyed, but thousands more remain.
At the current rate, the static detonation chambers at the Colorado facility could delay the destruction of the remaining portion of the US-declared chemical weapons cache beyond the September 2023 deadline. Downtime, maintenance, or a 5-day-week operational schedule could increase the time required to complete demolition activities, but processing some munitions at the main plant could help alleviate the problem.
Levi said the factory team “leans forward as a program and project to be ready when and when that is [permit] Decision made.” The team is working on a “plug-in-and-operate” concept to prepare the 4.2-inch mortar shells at the main plant so that they are ready for use by late summer.