President Obama said last night that he’s considering Russia’s plan to avert a military strike if Syria hands over its chemical weapons. Monitoring and securing the weapons is a huge task, as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both reported this morning. But once you get the weapons, destroying them is a whole other story. I spoke with Bechtel’s Doug Omichinski, a project manager who works at sites that dismantle the U.S. chemical weapon stockpile of mustard, nerve gas, and other chemical agents that date back as far as World War II. As he explains in this interview, which has been edited in places for clarity, it can take decades—and lots of robots—to get the job done.
Briefly, what are the chemical weapons you’re handling?
[In the nineties] there was a treaty that said all countries that had chemical weapons would destroy them within a scheduled time frame. The U.S. and Russia had the largest stockpiles. There were eight or nine facilities within the U.S. that held chemical weapons. Pueblo, Colo., and Richmond, Ky., are the last two remaining sites, making up about 10 percent of the original stockpile. We’re on schedule to complete it by by 2022, 2023.
How do you decommission the stockpiles?
These weapons, they were designed to be used; they weren’t designed to be disassembled. So that’s why these projects are very specialized. It’s always an assembly-line process. You’re basically introducing the munitions into very specialized equipment to disassemble these weapons, rinse out the agent, neutralize the agent, and then break down the reactant or the neutralized agent and recover the waste water.
Can you walk me through the assembly line?
At some point you’re moving the munitions from the storage areas in very specialized containers, because there are energetics in the munitions. You don’t expect that they’ll explode, but you don’t want to test them. You’re moving them into a facility that has what we call “hardened” walls and ceilings—2-foot-thick ceilings and 4-foot-thick floors. This is all concrete.
The workers will load these munitions onto a conveyor, and then the munition is handled by robotics only. [The robots are] cutting, removing, unscrewing, draining, punching, and moving these munitions through a series of stations that are taking all these little parts apart, draining the weapons. Then you’re moving the drained munition to thermal treatment, where the munition casing is thermally treated and then scrapped, and the liquid agent itself is then moved into what we call a toxic room, where the agent is then neutralized in reactors.
How do you neutralize the chemical agent?
In most cases, it’s a combination of hot water and caustic. They’re mixed in a big tank, and over time it neutralizes to a benign product. Then you can take that benign product and treat it commercially and recover some of the water and recover some of the solids that may fall out from the weapon or from the chemical agent.
Tell me about these robots.
You know that commercial where the robot on the automobile line fixes the other robots? We use those types of robots. They’re the size of people and can actually pick up and very easily move the munitions to the various stations, whether the weapon is being cut or the nose cone is being unscrewed or the burster well is being punctured to release the agent into a tank.
The robots aren’t automated, are they? Do you have a guy with a joystick somewhere?
Oh no, they’re automated. They are moving the munitions to various stations all on a very specific program. In a control room humans are monitoring through computers that are giving them feedback on the instrumentation and then also through cameras that the operators can watch the robots doing their thing.
How long does it take?
These [decontamination facilities] have typically [taken] an average of four to five years to build and then two to three years to what we call systemize or test. Then, depending on the stockpile, it can range from from three to six years for destruction. Our contract is to close those facilities also, so we will decontaminate them after the mission is complete and close or demo the chemical agent areas.
We look to process about 30 to 40 munitions an hour at Pueblo [in Colorado]. At Blue Grass [in Kentucky], they’ve got rockets and all kinds of stuff that take a little bit more time, so you’re down to four or five an hour. The amount of support that’s needed to be able to move these munitions, and do it safely, takes a lot of people, and to maintain the equipment. These are 365, 24/7 operations. You don’t stop. So you’ve got four different shifts by which crews are working on, and the mission is to get the weapons destroyed as quickly as possible.