WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Nerve agents and other chemical weapons can be destroyed safely and effectively using water and other neutralizing agents, according to a report from the National Research Council.
The United States faces a treaty-imposed deadline of April 2007 to dispose of its stockpile, and initial efforts have centered on very high-temperature incineration to render the chemicals harmless. A U.S. Army incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean destroyed its stockpile in late 2000, but community concerns over possible health hazards have stalled similar efforts within continental U.S. borders.
In late 1996, Congress mandated a study to examine alternative methods for neutralizing weapons at the Army's Lexington/Blue Grass Depot in Kentucky. Several of the methods also are under consideration for use at a depot in Pueblo, Colo.
"The committee confirms its belief that technologies using hydrolysis to destroy both agent and (complete weapons) are now mature, safe, straightforward, and effective," Robert A. Beaudet, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California, who chaired the study committee, said in introducing the report. "Moreover, the products from the hydrolysis no longer exhibit the acute toxicity of the agents and could be treated at commercial toxic or hazardous waste facilities if the states permit it," he said.
The committee examined methods from three companies: General Atomics of San Diego, AEA Technology of the United Kingdom and Eco Logic of Harwood, Md. All the techniques involve using water or a sodium hydroxide solution to break down the weaponized chemicals.
Although the report does not the compare different techniques with one another, or to the original incineration method, the Department of Defense will consider the findings in making its final technology choice for the Lexington facility early next year.
"Reverse assembly of munitions, followed by water or caustic hydrolysis ... is ready for immediate implementation for the neutralization of energetics and agents (at Blue Grass Army Depot)," the report said. The resulting compounds are similar to the sorts of materials handled by existing hazardous waste facilities.
The methods studied require varying amounts of additional work to ensure successful neutralization of the weapons at the scale necessary, the study said. The committee's work represents a well-balanced approach to the issues, said William Davison, spokesperson for General Atomics' demilitarization program.
"If we can make the technology even safer or more effective we would certainly want to do so," Davison told United Press International in an e-mail. "I only hope that we get the chance to use the products of this work at Lexington in the future."
The report's findings are the last component of the disposal equation, said Craig Williams, director the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a coalition of U.S. public-interest organizations located near weapons depots.
"For a long time in Kentucky we've had overwhelming citizen support for alternatives, and recently the Governor-appointed Citizens' Advisory Commission and our entire congressional delegation formally rejected incineration," Williams said in a statement. "Now we have the science of the NRC to back up our position. It's a big step."
CWWG members near existing weapons incinerators in Alabama, Arkansas, Oregon and Utah called for those facilities to be retrofitted with the hydrolysis equipment.
Chemical agents are one class of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. stockpile includes nerve agents, which kill by interrupting the nervous system's electrical signals, and mustard gas, which is less often lethal but can cause painful skin blisters, as well as eye and lung damage.