The incineration technology the United States plans to use at three new sites to destroy chemical weapons can be safe and effective, despite some safety concerns, according to a report released December 3, 2002, by the National Research Council (NRC), a branch of the National Academies. The United States is in the process of destroying its entire chemical weapons arsenal in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
The NRC report was motivated by concerns in Congress that “chemical events” involving chemical warfare agents at two sites that have already begun destroying the weapons—one at the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and one near Tooele, Utah—might indicate that future facilities using similar technology and management systems would also experience such incidents. The NRC report considered a chemical event to be any unintended release or potential release of chemical agent associated with demilitarization activities.
The report’s authors concluded that, despite some previous problems at the two sites, there is no evidence indicating that future facilities cannot operate safely. A 13-member NRC committee concluded that “safe chemical weapons disposal operations are feasible at the new facilities scheduled to begin operating at Anniston, Alabama; Umatilla, Oregon; and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, if their management is diligent in setting and enforcing rigorous operational procedures, in providing comprehensive training, in establishing a strong safety culture encompassing all plant personnel, and in absorbing programmatic lessons learned from the first two operational facilities.” All three new facilities are expected to use incineration to destroy their stockpiles and are scheduled to begin full operations sometime in 2003.
Storing chemical weapons poses a greater threat to public safety than destroying them, according to the report. The NRC recommends completing the destruction process “as quickly as possible” because the most urgent threat is from an accidental or deliberate release from stored chemical weapons. The report, however, also recognizes that “it is almost certain that new problems will continue to arise” in the incineration process, and it suggests several measures that the Army, which is responsible for operating the facilities, could implement to increase safety.
The report’s recommendations include ways to improve investigation of chemical events at facilities, implementation of lessons learned, communication between the Army and the public, and personnel training.
On December 17, citizens and scientists living in the Anniston area held a press conference to criticize the NRC report, alleging that it ignored the release of a “chemical plume” from the Utah incinerator in 1998 and the Army’s imperfect record of implementing recommendations. They demanded that the Army use a process known as neutralization to destroy the weapons instead of incineration, according to the Chemical Weapons Working Group, an advocacy organization that opposes incineration. Four other chemical weapons storage sites plan to use or are considering using alternative technologies, according to a September 2002 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office.