Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Pentagon on chemical weapons: Not so fast
It may take two years longer to destroy rounds, Army officials say.
By JOHN NORTON | email@example.com
Pentagon analysts have told the Army agency overseeing the destruction of weapons at the Pueblo Chemical Depot and the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky that it needs to be less optimistic about the timeline that the job will get done.
Conrad Whyne, acting manager of the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program, was in Pueblo on Monday for the change of command ceremony at the depot
While in Pueblo, Whyne said that part of the recent Nunn-McCurdy recertification of the program included a warning that it could take two years longer than expected to finish the destruction of the weapons.
ACWA and its primary contractor, Bechtel, have planned to start destroying weapons in 2015 and finish by the end of 2017. That's also the deadline mandated by Congress, which has made the weapons destruction a priority.
Bluegrass officials have not been as optimistic about meeting the 2017 date — still five years past the deadline set in an international treaty — because the Kentucky depot has nerve agent and a wider variety of weapons and containers.
Pueblo only has mustard agent in 780,000 mortar rounds and artillery shells, which will be opened and washed out — the agent neutralized in hot water and the wastewater treated with bacteria to break down remaining hazardous elements.
A law, authored in 1982 by Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. and Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., orders that anytime a defense program's costs rise 25 percent over estimates, it must be recertified to Congress. ACWA's cost estimate rose 33 percent, to $10.6 billion.
Whyne, who also heads the Army's Chemical Materials Agency, said the program met all five criteria:
The reason some Pentagon officials think it will take longer to rid the weapons is because even though most of the construction of the facility here is done is that several years of developing systems and testing new, first-of-its-kind equipment still must be completed before the first weapons are moved to the plant.
Whyne said, for example, it may be estimated that a robotic process can take three minutes to remove explosives from a weapon. "It might take two minutes with this weapon, but that other weapon could take four or five minutes."
He said the Pueblo program has received data from earlier tests of its robotic systems at the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama, but there are many more parts to the process that need to be examined.
Whyne emphasized that doesn't mean it will take until 2019 to finish the work, but that the analysts are looking at statistical estimates that build in the risks of things taking longer.
"I'm still charged with pulling it back to the left as I possibly can," he said of the timeline. He also said that the program is still fully funded and that the new timelines will not affect that.