Chemical Weapons Demilitarization Adventures

Chemical weapons, one of chemistry's more ill advised products, are now classified as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  Fortunately, most of the world's nations are now parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which is designed to rid the world of this class of WMDs and ensure no new lethal chemical weapons are produced.  As chemists, I feel that we have a special responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the CWC's goals are achieved as safely, efficiently and completely as possible.  This account outlines the opportunities I have had to help meet those goals.

U.S. Chemical Weapons Stockpile

Motivated by Cold War concerns after World War II, the United States (U.S.) developed, produced and stockpiled a wide variety of weapons, including M-55 rockets, bombs, artillery projectiles, mortar rounds, mines and airborne spray tanks, all designed to disperse lethal concentrations of chemical agents.  These weapons were loaded with either nerve agents (GB and VX) or blister agents (sulfur mustard formulations: H, HD and HT).  A total of 31,496 tons of chemical agents were produced after World War II, much of which was loaded into millions of individual munitions that often also contained energetic propellants and/or explosives.  The rest was stored in bulk steel containers.  Agent filled munitions and/or bulk containers were stockpiled in eight weapons depots in the continental U.S. Chemical munitions that had been deployed overseas were eventually consolidated and stored on Johnson Atoll, southwest of Hawaii.

By the 1980s it was clear that the stockpiled chemical weapons were deteriorating, becoming a danger to Army depot personnel, and potentially to the surrounding communities. Congress directed the U.S. Army to start destruction of some elements in the chemical weapons stockpile in 1985 (Public Law 99-145); in 1991 Congress directed that all U.S. chemical weapons be destroyed (Public Law 102-484).  In 1997 Congress ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty that specified all chemical weapons would be destroyed by April 29, 2012.  What is now the Army's Chemical Materials Agency (CMA) built and operated chemical demilitarization (demil) plants at Johnson Atoll and six of the eight continental U.S. storage depots, successfully destroying the 90% of the U.S. agent filled munitions and/or agent in bulk containers at these stockpile sites by the spring 2012 deadline. 

The last 10% of the U.S. stockpile is stored at the Bluegrass Chemical Activity site in Kentucky and the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado.  Congress funded a separate Army group, the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) activity to manage the destruction of the chemical weapons at these final two sites.  ACWA is currently finishing the construction and systemization of the final two U.S. chemical weapons demilitarization plants. Obviously, the U.S. has failed to destroy this final 10% of its chemical weapons stockpile by the CMA treaty deadline, but is on course to begin their destruction as soon construction and systemization activities at these final two demil plants are completed.

Chemical Weapons Demilitarization Challenges

The stockpiled chemical munitions were/are old and prone to leakage.   Further, some contain energetic materials that have degraded and could detonate without warning.  They must be carefully transported from earth-covered “igloos” in the storage yards to nearby demil plants, unpacked, checked for leaks, robotically disassembled, have explosives/propellants removed, be drained of agent, and have agent and energetics safely destroyed, with any traces of agents or energetics removed from munitions casings.  The entire set of demil processes must proceed under engineering control to contain or destroy any airborne or surface adsorbed agent.  Large amounts of both primary process materials and secondary wastes must be cleared of agent residue and highly toxic degradation products.  After all stockpiled weapons and/or agent in bulk containers are destroyed and waste materials are properly disposed, the chemical demil facility itself must be decontaminated and razed.  All of this must be accomplished while protecting the workers, the environment and the surrounding populace from any significant chemical agent exposure.

National Academies/National Research Council Chemical Weapons Demil Activities

To meet these challenges, Congress directed the Army to seek technical advice from the National Research Council (NRC), the National Academies' operating arm. In response the NRC's Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) formed a standing Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program (Stockpile Committee).  In 1993, while serving as the chair of the NRC's Atmospheric Chemistry Committee, I was asked to review a draft report prepared by the Stockpile Committee that evaluated airborne chemical agent measurement specifications and candidate analytical technology capabilities for use in the Army's chemical stockpile disposal plants.  I felt the report was incomplete and suggested some additional issues it could address in my review.  I was surprised when I was asked to join the Stockpile Committee later that year. I was not surprised that my first duty was to help revise the report I had criticized a few months before.

I was privileged to serve as a member of the “Stockpile” committee from late 1993 to 2000, the last two years as vice-chair.  The committee included a number of very distinguished and dynamic chemists and chemical engineers as well as experts in mechanical engineering, risk analyses, industrial engineering, industrial safety, environmental regulation and public involvement.  The Army's chemical demilitarization headquarters technical staff, located on the Edgewood portion of Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, its field staff from each active demil site, and their contractor's technical staff met with the Stockpile Committee to discuss technical, regulatory and managerial challenges the Army faced in designing, building, testing, systematizing and utilizing disassembly and incineration and thermal treatment techniques for storage depots with assembled weapons and chemical neutralization (hydrolysis) techniques for storage depots with only bulk chemical agent stocks.  The Army then requested formal reports authored by Stockpile Committee members and peer reviewed by the National Academies to formally address their most vexing problems.

During my tenure on the Stockpile Committee I participated in writing eleven peer reviewed NRC reports, starting with the rewrite of chemical agent monitoring report mentioned above,1 and moving on with an operational review of the Army's first chemical demil facility on Johnston Atoll,2 an  analysis of assessment criteria for non-incineration chemical agent disposal technologies,3 a review of systemization procedures for the Army's first stateside demil facility in Tooele, UT,4 and the role of civilian citizen involvement in the chemical agent demil program.5  Additional Stockpile Committee reports during my tenure dealt with chemical agent storage and disposal risk assessment and management,6  the potential use of supercritical water oxidation to detoxify nerve gas hydrolysis products,7 a review of the Army's responses to prior NRC report findings and recommendations,8 an integrated design for non-incineration disposal of chemical agent stockpiles at the Army's two “bulk agent only” storage depots,9 a review of the Army's public affairs activities at chemical demil facility sites,10 and an updated evaluation of occupational health and workplace monitoring issues and practices at demil facilities.11

Overstaying the NRC's six-year committee term limit, I cycled off the Stockpile Committee after leading the writing team for ref. 11, noted above.  However, on the evening of May 8 and early morning of May 9 an unfortunate “chemical event” occurred at the relatively new Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (TOCDF) sited at the largest chemical weapons stockpile near Tooele, UT.  In this instance a series of events that started with a furnace feed chute jam ended with the release of a small amount of GB nerve agent (later estimated to be less than 100 mg) through the common stack and into the atmosphere.  This event shut down all agent disposal operations at TOCDF for over 2.5 months, and operation of the offending furnace for over 4.5 months, as competing investigations by the operating contractor, the Army, the State of Utah and the Center for Disease Control struggled to understand what had occurred and why it happened.  The sunk cost of an idle TOCDF was reported to be $285,000 per day.

In the hope of avoiding similar embarrassing and costly future chemical events, the Army requested BAST to form a special committee to analyze the TOCDF chemical event and other, earlier and less dramatic, events that occurred at the Johnston Atoll chemical demil facility.  The NRC formed the Committee on Evaluation of Chemical Events at Army Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities, which I agreed the chair.  Our Committee examined all documented chemical events at the Johnston Atoll and Tooele demil facilities and their associated storage depots that occurred between 1992 through 2000.  We reviewed seven events that featured actual or potential release of chemical agent into an area where agent is not normally present or expected to be present, to determine common elements.  We chose two of these events, the May 2000 Tooele event, and a December 2000 Johnston Atoll event to analyze in great detail.  Our report identified several important factors including the observation that chemical events were rare during standard demil process operations, but much more likely to occur during non-processing activities such as secondary waste disposal or maintenance activities where standard operating procedures were unavailable or inadequate.  We also identified the fact that frequent false positive alarms from near-real time airborne chemical agent detectors created a “crying wolf” effect where operators tended to assume that agent detector alarms could be discounted.   We also observed that establishment of a stronger safety culture at demil facilities would be effective in preventing future chemical events.

Finally, vocal critics, who clamored that the few chemical events in the two pioneering chemical agent demil facilities that released tens of milligrams of agent into the atmosphere meant the facilities should be abandoned, needed to be addressed.  Our response was to analyze chemical events that took place in the two associated storage yards over the same time period.  We showed that actual storage yard leaks, including one that occurred while the committee was visiting TOCDF, released at least 100,000 times more chemical agent to the atmosphere than the two documented chemical release events at the two demil facilities.  Clearly, the way to minimize agent leaks to the atmosphere was to destroy the stockpile, not to close down the demil facilities.  I believe that the recommendations in our “Chemical Events” report12 greatly influenced ongoing operations at TOCDF and the subsequent chemical agent demil facilities, since the rate of chemical events at these facilities dropped dramatically as the false alarm rates of the agent monitoring instruments and their reportable accident rates decreased.  The cover of the “Chemical Events” report is shown below the title at the start of this account.  It is a composite image composed from photographs taken by Colin Drury, a key “Chemical Events” committee member. It depicts chemical munitions from the Johnston Atoll stockpile and some of the magnificent seabirds, which are now the Atoll's primary inhabitants in its new role as a nature preserve managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

From 2003 to 2010 I served on a new standing Committee on Chemical Demilitarization that BAST formed to replace the Stockpile Committee.  This committee was allowed to give informal real-time advice to the Army on problems brought before it during periodic briefings. However, if the Army needed a formal, peer-reviewed report addressing specific issues, separate NRC committees were formed to provide that service.  In addition to serving on the new standing committee. I chaired two of these focused committees. The first was charged with reviewing the airborne agent monitoring instruments deployed in operating demil facilities as well as advanced analytical instruments that might provide real-time in-plant and/or fence-line measurements of chemical agents at very low concentrations.13 The second was to investigate how recent advances in ambient ionization mass spectrometry might be used at the two ACWA demil sites to make real-time maps of adsorbed chemical agent contamination on personal protective ensembles, machinery, structural surfaces, activated carbon and other secondary waste materials.14

Serving on various NRC chemical demilitarization committees nearly continuously from 1993 to 2012 was an enormous privilege.  It allowed me to work with and learn from the many amazingly talented scientists and engineers serving with me. It was also a privilege to work with many talented and dedicated uniformed and civilian Army personnel assigned a difficult and dangerous task with many vocal public and political critics, some of whom had agendas that didn't include either scientific understanding or public welfare.  I am proud to have received the Chemical Materials Agency Director's Award for Excellence from them.

In the course of my NRC service I visited the chemical weapons stockpiles at Johnston Atoll, Tooele UT, Anniston AL, Umatilla OR, Newport IN, Edgewood MD and Pine Bluff AK, several multiple times. I am proud that I helped eliminate the chemical weapons that threated their people (or birds in Johnston Atoll's case) and their environment; particularly Edgewood, which no longer has ~1,670 tons of mustard agent stored 20 miles from the elementary school I attended.   I hope the stockpiles in Pueblo CO and Lexington KY will soon be gone as well.

Other NRC Chemical Weapons Service

The knowledge of chemical weapons I acquired working on the chem demil problem has led to other service opportunities.  In 2012 I served on a NRC Committee on Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Research and Development formed by the Board on Chemical Science and Technology and the Board on Life Sciences.  In four short months we reviewed the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense Program and analyzed the core scientific, technological and organizational and management capabilities required to meet today's array of chemical and biological threats.  Our report recommends significant program restructuring to create a more agile, capabilities based organization.15

National Academies/National Research Council Reports

1. “Review of Monitoring Activities within the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program,” C.R. Peterson, R.M. Dowd, E.M. Drake, C.G. Drury, G.E. Dryer, V.E. Falter, R.C. Flagan, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, J.P. Longwell, R.S. Magee, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, P.J. Niemiec, A. Novak, G. Parshall, G. Salvendy and J.R. Wild, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. (1994).

2. “Evaluation of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System Operational Verification Testing-Part II,” C.R. Peterson, R.M. Dowd, E.M. Drake, C.G. Drury, G.E. Dryer, V.E. Falter, R.C. Flagan, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, J.P. Longwell, R.S. Magee, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, P.J. Niemiec, A. Novak, G. Parshall, G. Salvendy and J.R. Wild, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. (1994).

3. “Evaluation of the Army's Draft Assessment Criteria to Aid in the Selection of Alternative Technologies for Chemical Demilitarization,” R.S. Magee, E.M. Drake, D.C. Bley, C.G. Drury, G.H. Dyer, V.E. Falter, A. Fisher, J.R. Gibson, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel. P.J. Niemiec, J.R. Wild, J.-S. Wu, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. (1995).

4. “Review of Systemization of the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility,” R.S. Magee, E.M. Drake, D.E. Bley, C.G. Drury, G.H. Dyer, V.E. Falter, A. Fisher, J.R. Gibson, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, P.J. Niemiec, G.W. Parshall, J.R. Wild and J.-S.Wu, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (1996).

5. “Public Involvement and the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program,” R.S. Magee, E.M. Drake, D.C. Bley, G.H. Dryer, V.F. Falter, J.R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, W.G. May, A.N. Mushkatel, P.J. Niemiec, G.W. Parshall, W. Tumas, Y.-S. Wu, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (October 1996).

6. “Risk Assessment and Management at Deseret Chemical Depot and the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility,” R.S. Magee, E.M. Drake, D.C. Bley, G.H. Dryer, V.E. Falter, J.R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, P.J. Niemiel, G.W. Parshall, W. Tumas and J.-S. Wu, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (September 1997).

7. “Using Supercritical Water Oxidation to Treat Hydrolysate from VX Neutralization,” R.S. Magee, E.M. Drake, D.C. Bley, J.R. Gibson, M.R Greenberg, K.E. Kelly, C.E. Kolb, D.S. Kosson, J.F. Mathis, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, G.W. Parshall, H.G. Rigo, A.F. Stancel and W. Tumas, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (1998).

8. “Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility- Update on National Research Council Recommendations,” D.S. Kosson, C.E. Kolb, D.H. Archer, P.M. Armenante, D.C. Bley, F. P. Crimi, E.M. Drake, J. R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, K.E. Kelly, P.B. Lederman, R. S. Magee, J.F. Mathis, W.G. May, A.H. Mushkatel, H.G. Rigo, K. Saito, W.L. Short, A.F. Stancell, S.R. Tannenbaum, C.A. Tolman and W. Tumas, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (1999).

9.“Integrated Design of Alternative Technologies for Bulk-Only Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities,” D.S. Kosson, C.E. Kolb, D.H. Archer, P.M. Armenante, D.C. Bley, J.L.R. Chandler, F. P. Crimi, J. R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, K.E. Kelly, P.B. Lederman, J.F. Mathis, C.I. McGinnis, C.F. Reinhardt, H.G. Rigo, K. Saito, W.L. Short, A.F. Stancell, S.R. Tannenbaum, C.A. Tolman and W. Tumas, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2000).

10. “A Review of the Army's Public Affairs Efforts in Support of the Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program,” P.B. Lederman, D.S. Kosson, C.I. McGinnis,  D.H. Archer, P.M. Armenante, D.C. Bley, J.L.R. Chandler, J. Costlnick, F. P. Crimi, J. R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, D.L. Grubbe, D.A. Hoeke, D.H. Johnson, K.E. Kelly, C.E. Kolb, G.L. Lage J.F. Mathis, F.G. Pohland, R.B. Puyear, C.F. Reinhardt, K.F. Reinschmidt, W.L. Short, A.F. Stancell, J.I. Steinfeld, C.A. Tolman and W. Tumas, National Research Council, Washington, DC (2000).

11. “Occupational Health and Workplace Monitoring at Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities,” P.B. Lederman, C.I. McGinnis, D.H. Archer, P. M. Armenante, J.L.R. Chandler, J.J. Costolnick, F.P. Crimi, J. R. Gibson, M.R. Greenberg, D.L. Grubbe, D.A. Hoecke, D.H. Johnson, C.E. Kolb, G.L. Lage, J.F. Mathis, F.G. Pohland, R.B. Puyear, C.F. Reinhardt, K.F. Reinschmidt, W.L. Short, C.A. Trolman, and W. Tumas, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2001).

12. “Evaluation of Chemical Events at Army Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities,” C.E. Kolb, D.C. Bley,, C.G. Druary, J. Fitzgerald, J.R. Gibson, H.C. Jenkins-Smith, W.G. May, G. McRae, I.F. Miller, D.W. Murphy, A.H. Mushkatel, and L. Weitzman, , National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2002).

13. “Monitoring at Chemical Agent Disposal Facilities,” C.E. Kolb, J.I. Steinfeld, E.M. Drake, C.G. Drury, J.R. Gibson, P.R. Griffiths, J.R. Klugh, L.D. Koller, G.D. Sides, A.A. Viggiano and D.R. Walt, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2005).

14. “Assessment of Agent Monitoring Strategies for the Blue Grass and Pueblo Chemical Agent Destruction Piolet Plants,” C.E. Kolb, J.L. Beauchamp, R.A. Beaudet, J.B. Berkowitz, H. Chen, A.DT. Cooper, F.M. Fernadez, R.D. Gibbons, J.A. McLean, M.D. Morris, D.W. Murphy, C.S. Reese, L. R. Rhomberg and A.A. Viggiano, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2012).

15. “Determing Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology,” M.E. John, D.R. Franz, J.M. Hruby, A. Johnson-Winegar, C.E. Kolb, C.R. Lyons, J. Mogford, D. Pronitz, T. Slezak, H.H. Willis, P. Scannon and G.M. Whitesides, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (2012).


Chuck Kolb