Posted: Friday, August 19, 2011
Udall can wait on weapons destruction
But the senator says there has to be safety reasons to do so.
By JOHN NORTON | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the legislators who helped pass a law telling the Army to finish destroying Pueblo's chemical weapons stockpile by 2017 said Thursday he's willing to be flexible, but wants to make sure the job is getting done as fast and safely as possible.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., visited the Pueblo Chemical Depot on Thursday afternoon during a daylong visit to the area.
Three years ago, Congress expressed its frustration with repeated delays in the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, the Army agency in charge of weapons destruction here and at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky. The response was a pledge to make sure that the projects were adequately funded along with a demand that the work be done by 2017.
That appeared possible for Pueblo, although Bluegrass officials were doubtful because they were dealing with a more complex mix of weapons including rockets with deadly nerve gas.
Then, earlier this summer, ACWA officials said that Pueblo may not be done until 2019 because of risks not foreseen earlier.
Udall, who was in the House in 2008, said he would go along with a longer time frame, "but with this caveat: You've got to be serious about safety and focused on destroying the weapons that are here.
"I'm going to keep addressing ways we can do that by 2017, but we've got to do this right."
He said he understood that as the systems that will be used are developed, it could take longer. "This is a one-of-a-kind facility. There are going to be adjustments."
Conrad Whyne, acting program manager for ACWA and director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency, and Arthur Hopkins, deputy assistant secretary for defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, also were in Pueblo on Thursday. They met earlier in the day with members of the Colorado Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission.
Whyne and Hopkins came to Pueblo to discuss ACWA's Nunn-McCurdy recertification, triggered by what they called a "critical" increase in the cost of the program. The requirement was added to the 1982 Defense Authorization Act by then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., and requires the Pentagon to justify any unforeseen cost increases.
Whyne said that the estimated cost of the entire program had risen to $10.6 billion from the $8 billion figure the agency had been using. Hopkins blamed the cost increase in part on a spike in commodities prices during construction, which is nearly finished now.
The law required Whyne to certify that the project was necessary and there were no alternatives. He also had to show how the extra money could be found. He met those requirements, but during the process analysts took a hard look at possible risks and added two more years to the program, projecting that weapons destruction could take until 2019 instead of the 2017 mandated by Congress.
Whyne said that "problematic rounds" were a big reason the analysts built more time into the life cycle of the program here. It is feared that some might not open properly or their mustard agent might not wash out.
Whyne said, for example, "If it takes one minute to wash it out that's fine, but if it takes three minutes, now multiply 780,000 by three."
While there are a number of options under study now for dealing with problem weapons, all basically using explosion chambers, no one will know how many of 780,000 rounds stored here will cause trouble.
More than 500 weapons have been overpacked in steel cylinders over the years after they have been found to be leaking or have been tapped for testing. Originally, it was expected that another 500 might show problems once crews begin removing them from igloos. That estimate has grown after it was found that a number of mustard agent weapons stored at the Anniston, Ala., Army Depot were found to be corroded and were not easily disassembled.
Pueblo's arid climate may keep that from being as much of a problem, but the unknown condition of the weapons has Pentagon officials concerned.
There also could be accidents, he warned. "Somebody doesn't follow procedure and gets exposed to agent," he said. "Tooele was shut down for nine months," referring to a weapons destruction program in Utah. Another accident in Umatilla, Ore., last year resulted in a worker suffering a quarter-sized blister from mustard agent.