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News from the National Academies

Date: Sept. 24, 1996
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Associate
Lee Tune, Media Relations Associate
Bill Kearney, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Alternatives to Incinerating Chemical Weapons
Should be Pilot-Tested at Two Sites

WASHINGTON -- Among the technologies selected by the U.S. Army for evaluation as possible alternatives to incinerating chemical weapons stockpiles at Aberdeen, Md., and Newport, Ind., neutralization-based technologies are the most suitable for testing at these sites, says a new report* from a panel of the National Research Council.

The neutralization-based systems came closest to meeting the criteria of the panel, which evaluated the technologies based on their ability to destroy chemical agents effectively, to protect human health and the environment, and to meet the Army's schedule for disposing of the weapons by the end of 2004. Neutralization uses water or sodium hydroxide to break the chemical agent into simpler compounds that can be released safely in the environment.

"These technologies are constantly evolving, and test results show that all of them can break down the chemical agents in a laboratory," said panel chair Richard Magee, executive director of the Center for Environmental Engineering and Science at New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark. "However, only neutralization technologies have been tested on a large scale to destroy chemical agents. The processes are simple and safe, and the systems also meet the technology criteria expressed by citizens in the surrounding communities."

Although laboratory tests done by commercial companies at the request of the Army show that all of the technologies have the ability to destroy mustard and nerve agents, the tests do not identify all the byproducts that might be formed in a full-scale facility or ensure effectiveness at large scales for the technologies. The test results also were not available soon enough for the panel to assess them fully. Before any systems are tested, an independent third party should analyze and verify the laboratory test results, the panel noted. In addition, before full-scale use, site-specific risk assessments should be performed to ensure that the process is safe and that any byproducts are not hazardous to human health or the environment.

There are 1,625 tons of mustard agent stored at Aberdeen and 1,269 tons of nerve gas at Newport. Even relatively small amounts of either agent are deadly. At the Aberdeen facility, neutralization with hot water should be followed by biodegradation, introducing bacteria to further break down the mustard byproducts into simpler compounds, the panel recommended. Biodegradation should take place off site at a permitted hazardous waste treatment facility. At Newport, the nerve agent should be neutralized with a sodium hydroxide solution, the panel said. The neutralization byproducts also could be shipped off site for treatment, but an acceptable treatment process first needs to be demonstrated.

Beyond Incineration
The Army developed an incineration system for getting rid of all types of chemical agents and weapons, but residents of Aberdeen and Newport oppose incineration because of concerns about emissions and the potential health and environmental risks they pose. The Army, while conducting its own evaluation of alternative technologies, asked the Research Council for a technical review to help assess which alternatives were most worthy of future pilot demonstration. The facilities in each community contain only one type of agent stored in ton containers, which greatly simplifies the disposal process.

At any of the six other U.S. sites where multiple agents or weapons are stored, many of which contain explosives and propellants, the disposal task is considerably more complex. The panel was not asked to compare the technologies with the Army's incineration system or to examine the possibility of using the technologies at any of the other sites.

Public Acceptance
The neutralization technologies appear likely to gain public acceptance, the panel said, because they meet three objectives important to residents of Aberdeen and Newport: The neutralization processes are closed-loop so that nothing is released to the environment without first being analyzed; the processes are low temperature and low pressure; and the technologies are simple and easily controllable.

Recognizing that public opposition to a technology can impede the implementation schedule at many stages, the panel held open meetings in both communities to solicit the views of residents. The panel also met with citizens advisory commissions -- formal groups appointed to establish communication channels with communities near stockpile sites. If the Army has not already done so, it also should take immediate steps to involve the surrounding communities in the process leading up to any decisions to pilot-test alternative technologies, the panel noted.

Technical Evaluation

The Army has pursued the possible use of neutralization systems following an earlier Research Council report. That report, issued in 1994, said that while incineration is an adequate method for destroying the nation's chemical weapon stockpile, alternatives should be developed to reduce possible delays resulting from public opposition. This new study compares the neutralization technologies with three other systems for destroying agents: high-temperature hydrogen and steam that break down the agents and form a synthetic fuel gas; chemical oxidation that uses electricity and silver compounds to create a reaction that destroys the agents; and a process that uses a high-temperature molten-metal bath to break down complex compounds into simple substances that could be reused.

Although each of the technologies can destroy agent, the neutralization-based technologies more fully met the panel's evaluation criteria in the following areas:

Performance and engineering. The neutralization technologies are the only ones -- other than incineration -- that have been used on a practical scale to destroy chemical agent. They operate at low temperatures, can easily be controlled, and employ conventional equipment already tested through extensive use in industry. Biodegradation, which also has been tested extensively, should be similarly dependable.

Safety and reliability. Rather than processing the chemical agent in a continuous stream, neutralization works with batches, allowing for testing and verification as the system operates before moving to the next step. The likelihood of an environmental accident is greatly decreased because of the low-temperature, low-pressure, step-by-step process, which simplifies management and control of the operation. Byproduct material from the neutralization process is tested for any residual agent before it is released. Vapors that are created during the process are monitored for chemical agent, scrubbed through a solution, and passed through multiple carbon filters before they are released into the atmosphere.

However, after a successful pilot demonstration, site-specific risk assessments should be performed at each site before any technology is adopted for full-scale use, the panel said. The assessments should determine the likelihood and consequences of an accidental release.

Speed in implementation. The Army has gained considerable operating experience with neutralization through extensive testing. In addition, the technologies seem likely to meet with public approval based on input received at public meetings, so opposition should be minimal. The Army should be able to obtain all necessary permits quickly for the neutralization and biodegradation technologies, the panel determined.

Regulatory and Policy Barriers

Current Army policies prohibit shipping neutralized agent byproducts to off-site treatment and disposal facilities. These policies need to be modified, the panel said, to allow for off-site treatment. Standards for transporting wastes also should be clearly defined and evaluated for consistency. In Newport, pilot-testing the technology will require modifying a state statute that calls for the system first to have been tested successfully at another facility.

The study was funded by the U.S. Army. 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, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of <Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technologies> for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
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[Internet availability: This news release is available on the World Wide Web at <http://www2.nas.edu/whatsnew/>.]


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems
Board on Army Science and Technology

Panel on Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technologies

Richard S. Magee (chair)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Chemical Engineering, and
Executive Director
Center for Environmental Engineering and Science
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark

Joan B. Berkowitz
Managing Director
Farkas Berkowitz and Co.
Washington, D.C.

Gene H. Dyer
Consultant
San Rafael, Calif.

Frederick T. Harper
Manager
Accident Analysis and Consequence Assessment Department
Sandia National Laboratories
Albuquerque, N.M.

Joseph A. Heintz
Consultant
Schererville, Ind.

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

David S. Kosson
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Rutgers University
Piscataway, N.J.

Walter G. May (1)
Professor of Chemical Engineering Emeritus
University of Illinois
Urbana

Alvin H. Mushkatel
Professor and Director
Office of Hazards Studies
Arizona State University
Tempe

Laurance Oden
Senior Researcher (retired)
Albany Research Center
U.S. Bureau of Mines
Albany, Ore.

George W. Parshall (2)
Director, Chemical Science (retired)
Central Research Department
E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co.
Wilmington, Del.

L. David Pye
Dean
College of Ceramics
Alfred University
Alfred, N.Y.

Roger W. Staehle (1)
Industrial Consultant, and
Adjunct Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science
University of Minnesota
North Oaks

William Tumas
Group Leader
Waste Treatment and Minimization Science and Technology Group
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, N.M.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Bruce A. Braun
Director, Division of Military Science and Technology

Michael A. Clarke
Study Director

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