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The Army has convinced Sen. Bob Bennett that incineration is the only reasonable way to safely destroy the complicated mix of chemical arms stored in Utah.

So the Utah Republican on Tuesday said it's time to quit seeking alternative methods to destroy arms there - and to begin incineration to eliminate what he sees as greater risks from continued storage of decaying munitions.That came as Assistant Defense Secretary Harold P. Smith told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that such destruction at Tooele Army Depot is expected to begin later this month.

Smith also said Bennett's stand plus eventual safe operations at Tooele - which stores 45 percent of the nation's chemical arms - should help erase sometimes heavy opposition the military faces at seven other storage sites where incinerators are planned.

Residents near those sites - and Utahns - have worried incineration can bring accidents, or allow nerve agent to escape unburned through smokestacks. They prefer alternative methods, such as using chemicals to neutralize nerve and mustard agents.

Some groups also worry about reports by Steve Jones - a former safety officer at the Tooele plant - that it is unsafe, and that he was fired for refusing to certify it as safe.

Bennett said during a detailed hearing Tuesday on chemical arms destruction that he toured the new Tooele plant last week, and the hearing and tour convinced him that incineration is the safest option available and that it must move forward quickly.

"The longer we keep them (the aging arms) without doing anything, the more dangerous they become," Bennett said - adding that he found in his tour of Tooele that new leaks in stored arms are found every day and have become routine.

"This underscores for me the need to get on with this," he said.

During the hearing, Ted Prociv, an assistant to Smith overseeing the military's chemical arms destruction program, also used full-scale models of some of the arms to show why chemical neutralization won't work.

He noted that some - such as the M-55 rocket - have explosives and propellent that also must be destroyed, and chemical neutralization won't work on them. Also, the casings for the arms sometimes can be decontaminated only by burning them.

"So some incineration is required with them anyway," he said, adding that neutralization is probably only realistic for nerve and mustard agents stored in bulk containers.

Prociv noted that he worked four years as a chemist at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground trying to perfect neutralization methods, but he is now convinced that incineration is the best, safest method of destruction possible.

But because of public pressure and recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences, the Army is still researching possible alternative methods - but probably only for use at the two sites that have nerve agents stored only in bulk containers (Newport, Ind., and Aberdeen, Md.).

Tooele not only has nerve and mustard agents in such bulk containers, but also in rockets, artillery projectiles, land mines and more.

While Bennett said he is convinced incineration is the safest technology available to destroy most arms, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., asked Smith how the military intends to likewise convince residents near a proposed plant in his state that it is safe.

Smith said he hopes to be able to point to safe operation at Tooele, which he said would "assuage fear of the public. But it's not an easy job . . . We must educate the public about what we are doing."

The military is proposing to spend $932 in chemical arms destruction next year - and says destruction will eventually cost a total of $12 billion.

The military is required by law to destroy all such arms by 2004. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said some are proposing to change that deadline to 2006 - the earliest that a new chemical arms treaty would require destruction globally.

However, Maj. Gen. Robert Orton, program manager for chemical destruction, urged the Senate not to move back the deadline - saying the current deadline is realistic, the arms are no longer needed - and the military wants them destroyed as soon as possible to reduce risks from extended storage.