Bugs in current chemical-arms destruction procedures have caused so many delays and cost overruns that the Army should take another look at using alternate methods, a congressional study says.
The Army says that would only cause further delays. It has asked the National Academy of Sciences to re-evaluate those alternate technologies anyway, but it doesn't expect a report for a year.That is important to Utah because its Tooele Army Depot stores more than 40 percent of the nation's chemical arms, and it plans to spend $900 million at a destruction plant now under construction there that is designed to use the current problematic procedures.
Also, Tooele and Dugway Proving Ground have been testing one of the backup procedures that a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, says may be cheaper and safer.
The new GAO study said cost of the nationwide chemical-arms destruction program was originally estimated at $1.7 billion but has grown to $6.5 billion and will likely continue to spiral because of a variety of delays and glitches - and the Army agrees.
Similarly, Congress originally ordered chemical arms to be destroyed by 1994. But problems forced that deadline back to 1997 and then 1999 - and the study said further delays are likely, with which the Army again agrees.
So the GAO "recommends that the secretary of the Army determine whether faster and less costly technologies exist for destroying the stockpile."
The current method - which the National Academy of Sciences in 1984 said was then the best available - drills holes in arms, drains the deadly chemicals and burns them, their metal parts/explosives and wrappings in different furnaces. It requires high-tech air filtration systems, complicated machinery and conveyors and special construction to contain accidental explosions.
The first large-scale plant to test the procedure was built on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. But it has had numerous problems during its test phase, which is seven months behind schedule and not yet completed. Eight other plants are planned, but only the one at Tooele has begun construction.
The GAO said that as of November, the Johnston Atoll plant had been "shut down a total of 900 unscheduled hours. Problems surfaced when the heated discharge conveyor jammed, the deactivation furnace flange bolts failed, the pollution abatement system plugged and gates jammed. (The plant) also had other day-to-day operational problems, but these were less significant."
(A Deseret News investigation also earlier revealed that a small, earlier pilot plant at Tooele that tested the same technology had eight accidents that released up to 73 times the legal hourly limit of deadly nerve agent into the atmosphere.) The Johnston Atoll plant as of November had been able to destroy only 13 chemical missile rockets an hour, while schedules call for it and sister plants to destroy 24 an hour.
Marilyn Tischbin, spokeswoman for the Army's Program Manager for Chemical Demilitarization at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., said Johnston has since been able to achieve the 24 missiles per hour goal - until an exploding missile recently put a hole in a furnace wall.
"No agent was released and no workers were exposed," she said. "But we had to shut things down and go in and repair the hole."
The study said the Johnston Atoll plant has also proven to require materials and labor that are much more expensive than envisioned. Tischbin added that construction in Tooele has also been more expensive than planned to protect against earthquake damage.
Because of such problems, she said, the third plant scheduled to begin construction - at Anniston, Ala. - was delayed "so we could incorporate as many lessons as we could from construction at Tooele."
The GAO said recent advances in an alternate system called "cryofracture" may make it worthy of reconsideration. That destruction method uses liquid nitrogen to free munitions, which are then crushed and burned in easy steps. It does away with the need for separating the many parts of munitions.
That system has been undergoing tests at Dugway, Tooele and at a contractor's plant in California, and Tischbin said reports about it are due later this spring.
The GAO also said the former Soviet Union has been gaining experience using chemicals to neutralize aging arms - and maybe that method should be reconsidered. The U.S. Army once used that method but later rejected it because of the many byproducts it produced.
Tichbin said the Army has asked the National Academy of Sciences to re-evaluate the technologies, and expects a report in a year.
"But we feel using them would just delay things further," she said. "We can't just stop things, take a new technology off the shelf and use it. They have to go through laboratory and pilot plant-level systemization and testing."