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News from the National Academies
Date: Dec. 3, 2002
Contacts: Barbara J. Rice, Deputy Director
Corbin Arberg, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Safe Incineration of Chemicals in Weapons Is Feasible and
Should Proceed Quickly Given Greater Risk With Continued Storage

WASHINGTON -- Chemical weapons stored in Alabama, Arkansas, and Oregon can be safely incinerated as long as facility managers follow rigorous procedures, encourage a strong culture of safety among personnel, and learn from unanticipated incidents that occurred at the first two facilities designed to destroy chemical munitions, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

Serious consequences from mishaps cannot be entirely ruled out, but the risk to the public and the environment from continued storage of chemical agents once used for warfare overwhelms the potential risks involved in incinerating the stockpile, said the committee that wrote the report. After examining 12 years of incinerator operations at the first two facilities, it identified 40 serious incidents that resulted in unexpected levels of agent within some part of the facilities, or in a few cases, release of agent outside the facility. In the three documented events in which chemical agent breached the incineration facilities' containment systems, monitoring records show that no more than the equivalent of a few small drops of agent was released into the environment.

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 death.

"The Army has incinerated about a quarter of the nation's chemical agent stockpile, but not without incident," said committee chair Charles E. Kolb, president and chief executive officer, Aerodyne Research Inc., Billerica, Mass. "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. 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."

The United States has been destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles -- 31,000 tons of nerve and blister agents deployed in several million individual munitions and containers -- to meet the April 29, 2007, deadline specified by the international Chemical Weapons Convention treaty. 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, nearly 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 Army asked the National Research Council to investigate whether incidents at the first-generation Johnston Atoll and second-generation Tooele incinerators yielded information that would be pertinent to the safe operation of third-generation incinerators scheduled to begin operating at Anniston, Ala.; Umatilla, Ore.; and Pine Bluff, Ark.

The Army, county commissioners, state regulatory agencies, and concerned groups and citizens provided the committee with information on incidents at the Johnston Atoll and Utah facilities. 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. The committee selected two of these 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 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. Some incidents led to actual or potential exposure of workers. Deficiencies in standard operating procedures, design failures, and inappropriate assumptions by operations personnel contributed to almost all of the incidents investigated in depth by the committee. For example, frequent false alarms have led workers to discount alarms until they have been confirmed. To counter this, management must emphasize a culture of safety in which responding to alarms is more important than production goals. At the same time, they must strive to acquire more sensitive and specific chemical agent monitoring instruments to minimize the number of false alarms that reduce confidence in the current monitoring system.

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. In addition, more accurate models for predicting how a plume of gas may disperse over an area should be coupled with timely communication of consequences and recommended responses.

Stronger coordination of training, equipment, and plans for responding effectively to an emergency incident also is needed, the committee said. And the Army should continue its program of outreach -- including listening and responding to community concerns -- to the public and relevant government oversight agencies, to enhance understanding of its chemical weapons disposal program. The committee also recommends that future investigations of serious chemical-agent-related incidents at demilitarization facilities be undertaken by a single, prearranged investigation team composed of representatives from all relevant management, regulatory, and oversight entities, and a qualified person from the public.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Evaluation of Chemical Events at Army Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities for free on the Web as well as 2,500 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Board on Army Science and Technology

Committee on Evaluation of Chemical Events at Army Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities

Charles E. Kolb (chair)
President and Chief Executive Officer
Aerodyne Research Inc.
Billerica, Mass.

Dennis C. Bley
President
Buttonwood Consulting Inc., and
Principal
WreathWood Group
Oakton, Va.

Colin G. Drury
University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor
Department of Industrial Engineering
University at Buffalo
State University of New York
Buffalo

Jerry Fitzgerald English
Partner
Cooper, Rose, and English LLP
Summit, N.J.

J. Robert Gibson
President
Gibson Consulting LLC
Wilmington, Del.

Hank C. Jenkins-Smith
Professor of Public Policy
George H.W. Bush School of Government
Texas A&M University
College Station

Walter G. May*
Professor
Department of Chemical Engineering
University of Illinois (retired)
Urbana-Champaign

Gregory McRae
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

Irving F. Miller
Director
Technical Consulting Services
BioTechPlex
Chicago

Donald W. Murphy*
Independent Consultant, and
Visiting Researcher
Department of Chemistry
University of California
Davis

Alvin H. Mushkatel
Professor
School of Planning and Landscape Architecture
Arizona State University
Tempe

Leigh Short
Independent Consultant
Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Leo Weitzman
Consultant
LVW Associates Inc.
West Lafayette, Ind.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Nancy T. Schulte
Study Director

* Member, National Academy of Engineering