June 16 , 2011
Weapons destruction program re-certified
By Bill Robinson
Senior News Writer
RICHMOND — The Chemical Destruction Citizen Advisory Board received some live news as it met for its quarterly briefing Tuesday.
CDCAB co-chair Craig Williams left the meeting for a conference call with Sen. Mitch McConnell's office and Pentagon officials. He returned to announce the program had passed a mandated review under the Nunn-McCurdy Act.
The act requires the Secretary of Defense to provided a detailed justification of any military procurement program that exceeds cost estimates by 25 percent. If unsatisfied with the explanation, Congress can terminate a program or require the military to find an alternative.
Pentagon officials informed the CDCAB in February that the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program, which will destroy through neutralization chemical agents still stored in Kentucky and Colorado, had surpassed cost estimates by 25 percent.
ACWA is a first-time program, and its plant designs were only one-third complete when cost estimates were last made, Williams said in February, explaining why they were so wide of the mark.
Most of the nation's chemical weapon agents were destroyed by incineration.
Also during Tuesday's meeting, Lt. Col. Steven Basso, commander of the depot's chemical activity, said he had just been informed that X-rays begun May 25 of random samples from the 15,400 mustard-agent projectiles at the depot begun had just been completed.
The X-rays were conducted to determine if the components of the projectiles had fused or their liquids had solidified, as was the case with similar rounds stored in Colorado. Problematic rounds could get stuck in the automated destruction plant, requiring personnel to retrieve them in a dangerous procedure, the CDCAB has been told in previous sessions.
David Velazquez, civilian director of chemical activities at the depot, said 96 rounds had been selected for X-raying, 32 from each of the three storage igloos that house mustard rounds. Statistically, that number of sample gives a 95-percent confidence rate, he said.
At first, three to four X-rays were taken of each sample, Velazquez said, but later, two to three X-rays were found to be adequate. Eight rounds were selected for a second series of X-rays.
Analysis of the X-rays will be completed prior to the CDCAB's Sept. 13 meeting, said Jeff Brubaker, the ACWA site manager for Kentucky.
After the chemical agents from all of the weapons are neutralized by combining them with a sodium hydroxide solution, the resulting caustic hydrolysate will be further broken down through a process called supercritical water oxidation (SCWO).
Dr. John Barton, chief scientist for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the project's civilian contractor, explained how SCWO works.
Water enters a supercritical state, he said, if heated above 705 degrees Fahrenheit under pressure greater than 3,206 pounds per square inch (PSI). The chemical weapons hydrolysate will be diluted with water and heated to 1,200 degrees under 3,400 PSI, he said.
Those conditions will cause rapid, thorough destruction of organic materials not easily dissolved in water or steam, Barton said. Relatively small amounts of hydrolysates will be treated for 15 seconds in three cylinders 10 feet long with an internal diameter of 7.6 inches.
Although the process requires large amounts of water, the system will reuse about 70 percent of the water it consumes, he said.
Final disposal of the SCWO-treated solution remains to be determined, Barton said, but deep-well injection is one possibility.
Brubaker said construction of the destruction plant is 32 percent complete. The SCWO building's foundation was recently poured, he said. The last of 17 doors to the blast-containment building also was recently put in place, another project milestone
Tom McKinney, Bechtel Parson's new site manager for Kentucky, said the rainy spring had caused some work delays, but he expressed confidence that the lost time can be made up. Lightening storms also prevent work on the plant's steel infrastructure, he said.
The project employs 700 people at the depot, 56 percent of whom live in Madison or surrounding counties, said McKinney, who also voiced satisfaction with the quality of available workers. Some iron workers, generally found only in cities where tall buildings are more often constructed, have a two-hour commute to Richmond, he said.
The project's "local" payroll has totaled $193 million to date.
Kentucky suppliers have been paid $72.6 million so far, with $43.8 million of that being spent in Madison and surrounding counties.
Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@ richmondregister.com or at 624-6622.