At the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Ky., a city of 32,000, 45 grass-covered, semi-buried concrete bunkers fan out across 250 acres. The Department of Defense calls the bunkers “igloos.” Housed inside is a stockpile of chemical weapons, the second-largest in the U.S., awaiting destruction: 101,000 rockets and projectiles loaded with flesh-eating mustard gas and the nerve agents VX and sarin—the same deadly poisons the Syrian regime used to kill thousands of its citizens in August.
Under the deal the U.S. and Russia brokered with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, international inspectors are taking inventory of Assad’s chemical arsenal. The challenges the U.S. has had disposing of its own weapons suggest that even if Syria is sincere, it’s at the beginning of a long process to dismantle the stockpile. The U.S. began destroying its chemical weapons in the mid-1980s. In 1993 it signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to eradicate its stash completely by 2012.
Almost 30,000 tons were disposed of by last year, but the job is far from finished. A base in Pueblo, Colo., holds 2,600 tons of mustard gas inside more than 800,000 weapons. The Blue Grass facility contains 523 tons of chemicals. At both sites the government is building specialized disposal factories. Robots will do the dirty work once the sites are operating—which is still years away. “These have typically been 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 three to six years for destruction,” says Doug Omichinski, a project manager at Bechtel, which is building the facilities. “They’re long projects.” All told, cleaning up the U.S. arsenal is estimated to cost $35 billion.
The first shipment of nerve-agent rockets arrived for storage at Blue Grass in a locked boxcar in 1961, recalls Lloyd Anglin, who worked on the base’s engineering staff. “The armed guards were there 24/7,” he says. At first, “nobody knew what it was except the brass.” Workers monitored the igloos with the help of rabbits, placing bunny hutches inside on the night before a planned inspection. “I would put one in the back, one in the center, and one in the front, then leave them there overnight,” Anglin says. “The next day, if the rabbits were OK, we’d go in. Once in a while, you’d get a dead rabbit.”
Most of the residents nearby had no idea Blue Grass housed the stockpile. They learned of it only in 1984, when the Pentagon announced plans to incinerate the weapons, then considered the best way to get rid of them. The military used incineration at several storage sites, including one in a Utah desert that held 45 percent of the nation’s stockpile. But Richmond residents who were concerned that burning the stash could spread contaminants put up a fight. Homes and a school are a little more than a mile from Blue Grass, says Craig Williams, co-chairman of the site’s citizens advisory board: “It’s not like we’re in the middle of the desert here.” In 1996, after 12 years of pressure from the Richmond community, Congress passed legislation requiring the Pentagon to find an alternate means of disposal.
Defense officials eventually settled on a process called neutralization, which renders the chemicals harmless. At Blue Grass, workers will load warheads onto a conveyer belt that will ferry the weapons into rooms that are sealed off from the rest of the plant and enclosed in concrete, with 2-foot-thick ceilings and 4-foot-thick floors. The rest is up to the robots. Working on an assembly line, they’ll defuse the weapons—so they won’t explode—and drain out the chemical liquids, then mix them in a large vat with hot water and a caustic solution to trigger a reaction that destroys the agent. The sludge-like byproduct gets treated with heat and pressure to break it down into carbon dioxide, water, and salts.
Syria is estimated to have about 1,000 tons of nerve agents, which Assad has pledged to get rid of by next year. Michael Kuhlman, chief scientist for national security at the Battelle Memorial Institute, which is helping Bechtel build the Kentucky plant, says the timeline is surprising. “They are presumably starting from scratch in terms of destruction capability, and the security situation there certainly isn’t going to expedite matters,” he says.
The Colorado disposal factory, expected to open in 2015, should process 30 to 40 munitions an hour, Omichinski says. At Blue Grass, which won’t open until 2020, robots will likely drain four or five weapons an hour. “These are 365, 24/7 operations,” he says. Even so, the last weapon won’t be gone until 2023.
How to destroy lethal rockets and projectiles
1. Move by conveyor belt into a concrete-enclosed room.
2. Life-size robots defuse the explosive warheads.
3. The bots then drain out the chemical agents.
4. Chemicals get mixed in a big vat with hot water and a caustic solution. That makes them benign.
5. The wastewater gets treated with heat and pressure.