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U.S. Chemical Weapons Disposal Slippage "No Surprise," Expert Says

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

A worker in 2010 inspects mustard agent shells stored at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. The U.S. Defense Department this week announced an anticipated two-year delay in eliminating chemical warfare materials stored at Pueblo and another installation in Kentucky (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski). A worker in 2010 inspects mustard agent shells stored at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. The U.S. Defense Department this week announced an anticipated two-year delay in eliminating chemical warfare materials stored at Pueblo and another installation in Kentucky (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski).

WASHINGTON -- A veteran observer of the U.S. program to eliminate its stockpile of chemical warfare materials on Tuesday expressed "no surprise" at the latest announcement of a further delay in completing the decades-long effort (see GSN, April 17).

The U.S. Army's Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program on Tuesday said it could need an additional two years, to 2023, to finish off the remaining 10 percent of the national arsenal. The total budget for the life of the ACWA program has also been increased by more than $2 billion, to $10.6 billion.

The United States once held nearly 30,000 tons of materials such as mustard blister agent and the nerve agents VX and sarin, along with hundreds of thousands of munitions that could have delivered the lethal substances in war. The country is obligated to destroy all the agents and weapons by April 29 of this year as a member nation to the Chemical Weapons Convention, ensuring the materials can never be used in warfare or obtained by terrorists.

Disposal operations began in 1990, and another Army branch in January completed its assignment to eliminate 90 percent of the U.S. stockpile, which was stored at seven installations on the U.S. mainland and the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

The ACWA program is charged with building and then overseeing neutralization facilities at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Elimination of roughly 2,600 tons of mustard agent at Pueblo is now estimated to be delayed from 2017 to 2019, with anticipated disposal of 523 tons of blister and nerve agents at Blue Grass pushed back from 2021 to 2023.

"The extended schedule for chemical weapons destruction announced today by the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives (ACWA) program comes as no surprise," according to Paul Walker, security and sustainability chief for the environmental organization Global Green USA. "The whole program since 1990 when the first destruction facility began operating on Johnston Atoll has been beset by constant schedule slippage and cost growth, indicative of the unpredictable nature of safely eliminating these dangerous weapons of mass destruction."

Challenges have included a major reduction in ACWA funding for several years during the Bush administration, which extended the schedule for drawing down the chemical arsenal, he said. The overall U.S. demilitarization program has also faced legal battles, malfunctioning technology and other complications.

"The worst thing would be to rush these dangerous stockpile destruction programs to meet a deadline, and wind up injuring or killing workers or local residents and/or badly endangering the environment," Walker told Global Security Newswire by e-mail. "So most of us are in favor of doing the job right, as required under the international legal regime, and placing deadlines as a secondary goal."

Walker and others said the Defense Department could still complete work ahead of the latest schedule projections. He noted that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 estimated that roughly 40 percent of the U.S. arsenal would remain by 2012; instead, all but 10 percent has been eliminated.

The new cost estimate covers all aspects of the ACWA program, from design of the disposal facilities, to demilitarization operations and finally closure and disassembly of the plants. In a press release, the Army branch said the new cost and schedule estimates "represent a conservative planning approach based on experience with earlier chemical destruction facilities and include the time necessary to resolve problems as an element of prudent management."

The updated projections account for "uncertainty" in activities such as recruiting workers, testing the disposal technology and procuring necessary "supplies and materials," ACWA chief Conrad Whyne said in the release. The agency as of deadline Wednesday had not responded to a request to speak with Whyne regarding further specifics of the challenges that might face the program.

"Depending on a number of variables we could see the schedule, and thus the costs, reduced significantly," Craig Williams, head of the Kentucky-based nongovernmental watchdog Chemical Weapons Working Group, said in a prepared statement. "The new projection is extremely conservative and is what we would call the 'outer boundary' of probable execution scenarios."

The disposal plant at Pueblo is close to completion, after which it would undergo testing for a period of years, the Associated Press quoted ACWA spokeswoman Katherine DeWeese as saying. Roughly 50 percent of the Kentucky demilitarization plant has been built.

Total spending for the ACWA program would be in addition to the estimated $28 billion expected to be spent for all operations by the Army Chemical Materials Agency, the service branch that finished disposal activities earlier this year.

Walker indicated the new U.S. schedule would not cause troubles for Washington at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international entity that monitors states' compliance with the convention. The new timeline is to be submitted to the 41-state OPCW Executive Council in May, he said.

Russia at that point might also deliver a revised schedule for eliminating its one-time 40,000-metric-ton stockpile of chemical agents, Walker said. Work there is now officially due to be finished in 2015, but the expert said "it might drag out to 2017-18."

Member nations to the Hague-based organization late last year voted overwhelmingly against penalizing Libya, Russia and the United States for missing the April deadline. Instead, they imposed a program of heightened reporting and transparency on demilitarization programs in the three nations.

"It will be interesting to see what the [Executive Council] response will be" to the U.S. announcement,  "but I expect it will be very positive," Walker stated. "The EC knows well that the U.S. is fully committed to completion of its CW stockpile destruction."

An OPCW spokesman on Wednesday declined to comment on the new U.S. chemical weapons destruction estimates, but noted that Moscow, Tripoli and Washington are all required by April 29 to submit detailed disposal plans that include anticipated completion dates.

Libya is likely to receive a "stern rebuke" for the former Qadhafi government's failure to fully declare its chemical arms holdings upon joining the convention in 2004. A limited amount of material has been identified in the wake of fall of the regime and Qadhafi's death last year (see GSN, April 13).

 

NTI Analysis

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