PARIS, June 1 (UPI) -- The French Ministry of Defense has selected space technology company Astrium to destroy chemical munitions left over from World War I.
As prime contractor for the government's SECOIA program -- SECOIA is the French abbreviation for "destruction site for stockpile of old weapons" -- the EADS subsidiary will design, build and operate a specialized plant for the destruction of the government's stockpile of the weapons, which continue to turn up in farmers' fields every spring planting season.
It's estimated about 66 million chemical artillery shells were fired by German, French and British forces from 1914-18 and that as many as one-quarter failed to detonate.
Chemicals used included chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.
SECOIA is part of France's commitments within the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention which came into force in 1997. The objective is to destroy unexploded chemical weapons discovered on former battlefields in northern and eastern France while ensuring maximum safety levels for people, the environment and property.
SECOIA will use an automated system at the Mailly-le-Camp site in Aube, France, to destroy more than 46 tons of chemical weapons per year beginning in 2015, the ministry said.
The weapons -- many of them rusting and unstable -- are stored by the French Interior Ministry in Suippes.
Under the contract, Astrium will build a plant that makes use of specially adapted equipment. All weapons handling operations will be entirely remotely controlled.
Pyro-chemical safety measures will also be implemented for the entire process, from the initial unloading of the weapons through to their final destruction.
The Defense Ministry said the process implemented will ensure complete control over waste products and their processing will be performed by specialized systems.
In its role as industrial prime contractor, Astrium will also provide comprehensive services throughout the program and operate the plant.
Astrium will draw on its extensive experience in a wide range of high-technology fields, including the development of complex systems and secure infrastructures and the design and manufacture of automated, functional workshops.
Many of company's skills were developed by Astrium to support France's ocean-going ballistic deterrent capability at the Ile Longue ballistic submarine base.
Astrium will use a detonation chamber to destroy the weapons.
As prime contractor, Astrium has reportedly decided to use a proven technology developed by Japan's Kobe Steel, a specialist in the destruction of old chemical weapons via detonation in a shielded enclosure.
Kobe Steel has equipped several plants in Europe and around the world that were used in the destruction of chemical munitions.
The second major industrial partner of Astrium in the project is TREDI, a subsidiary of the French group SECHE Environment, a recognized specialist in the processing of industrial chemical waste.
The Defense Ministry said the SECOIA program -- from initial design and building to completion of the operational phase -- is expected to last more than 20 years.