Report Supports Chemical Weapons Incineration
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, December 4, 2002 (ENS) - Despite problems with chemical releases and safety violations at two existing chemical weapons incinerators, it is safer to burn the obsolete weapons than to continue storing them in Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon, concludes a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. But critics charge that the council ignored many of the dangers inherent to incineration.
The council says the munitions can be incinerated safely if facility managers follow rigorous procedures, encourage a strong culture of safety among personnel, and learn from problems encountered at the first two facilities designed to destroy chemical munitions.
"The destruction of aging chemical munitions should proceed as quickly as possible," the NRC added.
Under the international Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, the United States has agreed to destroy its stockpile of aging chemical weapons - 31,000 tons of nerve and blister agents deployed in several million individual munitions and containers - by April 29, 2007. Most of the weapons disposed of thus far have been destroyed in high temperature incinerators at two facilities located in the Utah desert and on and island in the Pacific Ocean.
The Army has now built or is building three new incinerators located much closer to inhabited areas, in Anniston, Alabama; Umatilla, Oregon; and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. All of these facilities have met public resistance due to safety concerns, and lawsuits are now challenging the facilities in Anniston and Umatilla.
The Army asked the NRC to investigate whether incidents at the first generation Johnston Atoll incinerator and the second generation Tooele incinerator yielded information that could help improve safety at the planned third generation incinerators scheduled to begin operating at Anniston, Umatilla and Pine Bluff.
In contrast, from 1990 to 2000, leakage at two storage sites from deteriorating containers and weapons - most over 40 years old - occurred several hundred times. The most serious event involved a leak into the environment of 78 gallons of mustard agent, which can last underground up to 10 years and cause skin blisters, difficulty breathing, blindness and even death.
"The Army has incinerated about a quarter of the nation's chemical agent stockpile, but not without incident," said committee chair Charles Kolb, president and chief executive officer of Aerodyne Research Inc.
"None of the events we identified threatened residents beyond the perimeters of the facilities, but they did raise safety concerns among local residents and elected officials," Kolb continued. "We reviewed information about these events from sources within the government and from a full range of public sources, and concluded that safe incineration is feasible and should proceed as quickly as possible with continued strict observation of safety precautions."
But critics of the study say it glosses over many of the most serious incidents at the two existing incinerators. Craig Williams, director of the nonprofit Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), said the report is a "review of carefully selected information on the Army's incineration program which in no way represents the real life risks of the technology to workers and the public."
For the NRC report, the Army, county commissioners, state regulatory agencies, and concerned groups and citizens provided the NRC committee with information on incidents at the Johnston Atoll and Utah facilities. After a 10 year effort ending in 2000, the Army completed the destruction of the stockpile at the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. Between 1996 and 2001, almost 40 percent of the 13,616 tons of agent at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele County, Utah - the site of the largest stockpile - was incinerated.
The committee selected seven unusual occurrences for study on the basis that they could have had serious outcomes, were complex in nature, and were well documented. Two of these incidents were selected for detailed study - one at the Johnston Atoll facility and one at the Utah facility - which had resulted in the release of agent into the environment and triggered detailed investigations.
Extraordinary safety precautions are built into the design of incineration plants, the NRC report says. Releases from the facilities have been rare, isolated events involving no more than the equivalent of a few drops of chemical agent.
In all cases, the releases did not occur while the facilities were incinerating chemical agent, but while they were undergoing maintenance or, in the case of the Johnston Atoll facility, plant closure procedures. However, some incidents did lead to actual or potential exposures to workers.
To counter this, management must emphasize a culture of safety in which responding to alarms is more important than production goals, the NRC advised. At the same time, they must acquire more sensitive and specific chemical agent monitoring instruments to minimize the number of false alarms that reduce confidence in the current monitoring system.
"There will be future 'chemical events,' and serious consequences to both plant personnel and surrounding communities cannot be ruled out," the report warns. However, "The major hazard to the surrounding communities arises from potential releases of agent from stockpile storage areas, not the demilitarization facilities," the NRC adds.
Appropriate communications during and after incidents have not always occurred as intended among various stakeholders, the committee found. Site specific reporting procedures should be established and supplemented by a training program to test and improve procedures and communication systems.
An approach developed by the Deseret Chemical Depot could serve as a model for other communities to ensure both close oversight of operations and a reliable means of informing local officials about chemical events, the NRC said. In addition, more accurate models for predicting how a plume of gas may disperse over an area should be combined with timely communication of consequences and recommended responses.
The committee also recommended that future investigations of serious chemical agent related incidents at demilitarization facilities be undertaken by a single, prearranged investigation team including representatives from all relevant management, regulatory and oversight groups, along with a qualified person from the public.
CWWG director Williams said that while the NRC makes some good recommendations for improving safety at existing facilities, it fails to justify using incineration when alternatives such as chemical immobilization of weapons materials are available. He suggested that the report may in fact be biased toward incineration because certain members of the NRC committee and some of the report's reviewers are connected with the chemical demilitarization program or other government projects, raising conflict of interest questions.
"For anyone to accept this report as either accurate or objective would be a mistake," said Williams. "Unfortunately, it is the citizens living near the incinerators who will bear the consequences of its failures."
To read the full report, "Evaluation of Chemical Events at Army Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities," visit: http://www.nap.edu/books/0309086299/html/