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Any alternative to current Army plans to destroy chemical arms by incineration would bring at least 13 extra years of delay, according to congressional researchers.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, says any possible gain in safety by those alternative methods would likely be outweighed by extra danger from deterioration in aging arms during that time.In other words, it says government proposals to continue developing some of those alternative destruction methods appear to be a waste.

Of course, 42 percent of the Army's chemical arms are stored at Utah's Tooele Army Depot, where an arms incineration plant has been built and is being tested.

Some citizen groups have opposed incineration, worrying that small amounts of nerve agent or other toxic materials may escape. Pressure by such groups nationwide led Congress to order studying possible alternatives.

The National Research Council earlier this year concluded that Army incineration methods are safe but recommended continuing to study and develop some alternative methods anyway - just in case.

The Army later adopted those recommendations. It said it would proceed as planned with incineration at Tooele and seven other sites, but at the same time would work on alternative methods such as using other chemicals to neutralize the arms.

But the GAO said, "The alternative technologies we reviewed would require at least 13 years - until 2007 - to proceed sequentially through all the stages of development and reach maturity."

Congress has ordered the Army to destroy all its chemical arms by Dec. 31, 2004. "It is unlikely that any of these technologies will reach maturity in time to destroy the entire U.S. chemical weapons stockpile by the congressionally mandated deadline," the GAO said.

And even if Congress wanted to move back that deadline - which it has done four times - a new global chemical arms ban treaty under consideration by the Senate may block that. It requires arms destruction as early as 2005, with an extension to 2010 possible.

The GAO said studies also show the chemical stockpile is old and is expected to degrade with time, and that "risks posed by continued chemical weapon storage, while very small, far exceed the risk of disposal."

The GAO said it is also impossible to estimate how much developing alternatives will cost because they are still in the initial stages of research. It said the Army has spent $1.5 billion on its incineration method and expects to spent $8.6 billion eventually - or four times its original estimate.

The GAO also said, "None of the potential alternative technologies we reviewed would alone be able to render the entire weapon - chemical agent, explosive, metal parts and dunnage - unusable and decontaminated" - which the current incineration method does.

"This means multiple alternative technologies would be necessary, which could result in considerable program delays and additional costs," it said.