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News from the National Academies

Date: Feb. 4, 2004
Contacts: Patrice Pages, Media Relations Officer
Christian Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Improved Monitoring of Degrading Chemical Weapons
Could Facilitate Disposal Operations

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army should more aggressively monitor the condition of munitions containing the chemical agents sarin, VX, and mustard in storage at eight U.S. military sites to better document anomalies such as degradation, leaks, and corrosion, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Improved tracking of problems could allow better assessment of the risks posed by the chemical agents while they are stored and facilitate disposal operations for these aging stockpiles, said the committee that wrote the report.

"Because these munitions are leaking and degrading over time, they increase risk to the general public, the environment, and especially workers at the storage sites," said Peter Lederman, committee chair and retired professor of chemical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. "The Army should regularly monitor the stockpile to spot possible trends, such as an increased frequency of leaks, and to make corrections at the earliest possible time."

The Army has been monitoring and collecting data at the storage sites since 1973, but some important information, such as the age of leaking munitions and the temperature of the bunkers in which the munitions are stored, is either sparse or missing. The U.S. Army should improve its program for acquiring and storing this data, and analyze it for trends in leak development and other anomalies, the committee said.

One concern addressed in the report is the possibility that leaks may increase with temperature. Because the average outdoor temperature at different storage sites varies over time, it may affect the rate at which the agents degrade and also may damage container materials. The Army should consider monitoring to determine whether the rate of leaks is related to temperature, the report says.

Another cause of concern is the current lack of knowledge about the risk of leakage due to degradation. For example, data indicate that most leaks occur in munitions containing sarin, while leaks in munitions holding VX and mustard agent have been comparatively rare. Because of this higher rate of leakage, sarin munitions have been monitored more closely. However, the committee was concerned that the stabilizer in VX munitions -- which is used to delay degradation of VX -- may be dropping to very low levels, which might result in increased leakage rates before these munitions are scheduled for destruction.

Another possible hazard is the explosion of pressurized hydrogen gas formed when mustard agents degrade. The Army should also take steps to minimize this risk, the report says.

Also, scientists have shown that the munitions' degradation first occurs slowly for a long period of time, and then accelerates rapidly. While the available data do not show a rapid increase in leaks in any of the types of munitions, such an acceleration could happen in the future, the report says. The Army should expedite disposal of these munitions to minimize the chance of an increase in degradation rate, the committee said. In the meantime, the Army should identify as early as possible any significant upward trend in the leak rate.

Even if the monitoring of leaks improves, these and other anomalies still pose risks – however small – to workers, the environment, and the general public, the committee noted. The only way to eliminate those risks is by destroying the munitions, in particular those containing sarin, as soon as possible.

"The ongoing degradation of these munitions is at present only a minor contributor to the risks from storage of these weapons," Lederman said. "But such degradation will continue, and the extent to which leaks and other anomalous conditions will happen is difficult to predict. The swift destruction of the munitions is ultimately the only effective way to reduce risks to the public."

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

Copies of Effects of Degraded Agents and Munitions on Chemical Stockpile and Disposal Operations are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. The cost of the report is $18.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org ]


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

Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program
Peter B. Lederman (chair)
Executive Director
Hazardous Substance Management Research Center
New Jersey Institute of Technology (retired)
New Providence

Charles I. McGinnis (vice chair)
Major General
U.S. Army (retired), and
Consultant
Charlottesville, Va.

David H. Archer1
Adjunct Professor
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh

John J. Costolnick
Vice President for Engineering
Exxon Chemical Co. (retired)
Houston

Elisabeth M. Drake1
Associate Director for New Energy Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (retired)
Cambridge

Deborah L. Grubbe
Corporate Director for Safety and Health
E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Wilmington, Del.

David A. Hoecke
President and CEO
Enercon Systems Inc.
Elyria, Ohio

David H. Johnson
Vice President and General Manager
ABS Consulting
Irvine, Calif.

John L. Margrave2 (deceased 12/03)
E.D. Butcher Professor of Chemistry
Rice University
Houston

James F. Mathis1
Vice President of Science and Technology
Exxon Corp. (retired)
Houston

Frederick G. Pohland1 (deceased 01/04)
Edward R. Weidlein Chair of Environmental Engineering and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh

Robert B. Puyear
Consultant
Chesterfield, Mo.

Charles F. Reinhardt
Director
Haskell Laboratories
E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. (retired)
Chadds Ford, Pa.

W. Leigh Short
Senior Vice President
URS Greiner Woodward-Clyde (retired)
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Jeffrey I. Steinfeld
Professor of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

Rae Zimmerman
Professor of Planning and Public Administration, and
Director, Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
New York University
New York City

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Donald L. Siebenaler
Study Director


1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences