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Just how stable is the Army's 50-year-old stockpile of M-55 nerve-agent rockets?

An active controversy stems from the fact the Army and chemical weapons watchdog groups agree that the rockets are more stable than the Army previously thought."Preliminary results based on available data indicate that the propellant may have a longer safe storage life than had previously been predicted," said an Army statement released Tuesday.

One or two more M-55 rockets start leaking the deadly nerve agent they contain each month in the stockpile at Tooele Army Depot. The Army inspects storage igloos housing the rockets quarterly and routinely repackages "leakers" to keep the GB nerve agent confined.

But the stability of the propellant is drawing the greatest attention. Once the propellant starts breaking down, it can spontaneously ignite the rocket's explosive charge.

The Army hopes to start incinerating its chemical weapons stockpile in February and has cited the weapon's potential instability as a reason to keep on schedule with incineration plans.

But watchdog groups such as Utah's Downwinders and the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group say the danger doesn't outweigh several unknowns in the incineration plan, such as potential toxins in stack emissions and incomplete emergency response plans for communities surrounding chemical weapons stockpiles.

The Army has a test plant on Johnson Atoll in the Pacific that is burning chemical agent simulants to test the effectiveness of chemical agent burn plants. A $400 million burn plant at Tooele Army Depot's south area is in the final construction and testing stages. The target date to begin incinerating chemical weapons and bulk-stored chemical agents is in February.

The watchdog groups want the Army to consider weapons destruction techniques other than incineration: methods that carry high-tech names such as bioremediation, supercritical water oxidation and electrochemical oxidation, for example.

Utah Downwinders spokesman Steve Erickson said he doubts the Army will abandon its multibillion-dollar incineration program in Utah and other states but believes the Army's statement this week indicating the rocket propellant is more stable than was previously thought is a reason to slow down the incineration time line.

"The point we've always tried to get across here is, yes, continued storage creates risks and those risks increase over time. But those risks are not so great that we have to rush to burn," Erickson said.

"Incinerating nerve gas can succeed, but there are serious questions about what comes out of the stack. It is unlikely anybody is going to get (exposed to) nerve gas and drop dead, but there are numerous products of destruction. Whether they get into the food chain, for example, is an open question," he said.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group contends the Army substituted days for weeks in calculating the risk of a crisis situation involving the stockpile, leading to the conclusion the rockets could begin spontaneously igniting in less than 18 years.

"However, a recent review of these calculations projects the time horizon for stockpile safety at more than 120 years," said group coordinator Craig Williams.

The Army plans to destroy stockpile chemical weapons beginning next year in a program expected to last until 2004. The study will determine whether changes will be made in the M-55 surveillance program that will continue until the munitions are destroyed.

The Army's reassessment study is scheduled to be complete this fall.