Earlier this summer, disposal experts with the Defense Department destroyed the last remaining M55 rocket filled with deadly sarin nerve agent at a storage faci...
Earlier this summer, disposal experts with the Defense Department destroyed the last remaining M55 rocket filled with deadly sarin nerve agent at a storage facility in Kentucky. It was a major milestone, marking the safe elimination of all declared chemical agents amassed between World War I and the late 1960s. To find out what and who were involved in this extensive initiative, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Reduction and Arms Control, Kingston Reif.
Tom Temin I guess I didn’t realize that this effort was going on until this late into the, you know, towards the end of 2023. Give us the background here. These were assembled and I guess intended for possible use in warfare until that was declared out of bounds. Fair way to describe it?
Kingston Reif Yes, sure. So first to contextualize my role, I represent the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and Sustainment, which is responsible for the manage of the assembled chemical weapons alternatives or ACWA programs, efforts to destroy the last 10% of the declared U.S. chemical weapons stockpile housed in Kentucky and Colorado, while ensuring the department’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is the treaty that prohibits the possession, development and use of chemical weapons and the destruction of approximately 30,600 U.S. tons of chemical agent that was originally housed in nine declared chemical weapons stockpile locations is an achievement that has been decades in the making and was achieved, as you noted, when the ACWA program completed destruction operations with the processing of the last GB or sarin filled M-55 rocket at the Bluegrass Chemical agent destruction pilot plant in Kentucky on the 7th of July, which was a little over two months before the U.S. commitment to destroy the entirety of the declared U.S. chemical weapons stockpile by September 30th of 2023.
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Tom Temin And what is the process required to destroy one of these things? You can’t just blow it up because then it would schmear around what it is you were trying to get rid of.
Kingston Reif Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. It takes a lot of dedicated members of the workforce and the community in the last to stockpile locations, Kentucky and Colorado to reach a unified path forward for destruction of a chemical weapon. The previous 90% of the chemical weapons destroyed across seven of the nine sites in the country prior to 2012 was done using neutralization for bulk containers of chemical agents and incineration for actual chemical weapons filled munitions. And so the department, in collaboration with the surrounding communities in Kentucky and Colorado, impacted by the last 10% of the declared stockpile, ultimately selected neutralization, followed by bio treatment for the chemical weapons stockpile in Colorado and ultimately neutralization, followed by secondary weight, offsite disposal of the resulting waste. And I should add that this was extremely dangerous work. These weapons were not designed to be taken apart. They had to be painstakingly disassembled in reverse because they were designed with the sole purpose, right, of detonating on the battlefield and inflicting horrendous suffering on their victims. So the achievement really has relied on decades of hard work by thousands of military and civilian employees and contractors. And we owe them a massive debt of gratitude and are very proud of the fact that they were able to complete this extremely important mission safely.
Tom Temin The sarin then was not simply in canisters in a warehouse, but inside something that still had the energetics and the explosives with it.
Kingston Reif That is absolutely correct. Yes. In the form of rockets.
Tom Temin And the sarin itself, was it a powder or a liquid? I mean, what did you find when you managed to open up these things?
Kingston Reif Yeah. A liquid nerve agent. Yep.
Tom Temin Got it. And the bomb part of it. How do you open up an old bomb? Because if you’d not careful, you could detonate it because you don’t want to whack on the accelerator. And so what do they do? Take a circular saw and kind of cut it in half in the middle? I mean, give us a sense of what actually takes her.
Kingston Reif I mean, you’re right. As I mentioned, it’s a very it was a very painstaking process. The weapons had to essentially be painstakingly disassembled and reversed. There were different types of munitions that we were dealing with that required different types of processes to automate disassemble. Generally, the first step was, was to remove the for the rockets, the rocket motors and for some of the artillery munitions to remove the energetics that you mentioned. And then for some of the warheads on top of the rockets, there were basically there would basically be a cut that was taken and holes punched to drain the rocket of the agent and then to neutralize that agent. And by neutralize, I mean reduce that the toxicity, if you will, of the agent in compliance with what is required by the Chemical Weapons Convention. And then for some of the mortars that we had, which contain largely mustard agent, we would use very what amounted to high pressure water power washing to rinse the agent out of the munition and then basically baked the remainder of the munition at very high, high temperature render what was left scrap metal. And then finally, we also used at both locations what were called static detonation chambers, which effectively is a thermal destruction technology whereby we put the entire rocket or the entire mortar into the chamber, heated it to an extremely high temperature, and in a contained and safe way, the munition exploded within that chamber. And all the you know, the remaining agent was thermally destroyed.
Tom Temin It sounds like sort of fun and scary all at the same time.
Kingston Reif A very important mission to meet a very high priority U.S. international treaty commitment.
Tom Temin And are there any long term learnings from the destruction process that might apply in other domains of weaponry and weapons handling and lifecycle management here?
Kingston Reif So certainly I think one of our priorities is to ensure that we retain the human knowledge, the technical knowledge that went into the destruction of the declared U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. The Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the most widely adhered to international agreements that has ever been negotiated. But there are still four nations that are not party to the convention. And we know that several of those nations are still have chemical weapons. So whether it’s in the event of a battle field contingency down the road or in the event of a diplomatic opening with one of these countries to whereby they decide to join the Chemical weapons convention and destroy their chemical weapons stockpile, we want to be in a position to aid and assist in that. Likewise, there are states, parties, members of the convention, notably Russia and Syria, who have signed up to the convention, who have ostensibly destroyed their chemical weapons stockpiles. But we know that they retain chemical weapons, that they retain offensive chemical weapons programs. So the department, the government needs to be in a position to, again, in the event of a contingency or in the event their behavior changes and they renounce those programs, should be able to dissect, assess and destroy chemical weapons worldwide.
Tom Temin Because the U.S. has had experience in helping other nations with their own destruction.
Kingston Reif And experience that we are very proud of. We have assisted numerous nations in the destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles. So that includes Russia, that includes Syria, that includes Albania, that includes Panama, just to name a few.
Tom Temin But the fact that there are a couple of nations that still retain these and that they could potentially be used means that the United States has to retain the ability to protect its own warfighters from the effects of such a weapon. So that’s something you can’t discard yet.
Kingston Reif Absolutely. And we have a program within the Defense Department under the leadership of my boss, the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs that is focused on exactly that.
Tom Temin All right. So what comes next now? You sure you got them all?
Kingston Reif We’re absolutely sure we got them all. We destroyed the entirety of our declared chemical weapons stockpile, as I mentioned. And I want to add that it’s really hard to overstate the importance of that milestone that we achieved in July. 100% of the world’s declared chemical weapons have now been destroyed. And for the first time, an entire category of declared weapons of mass destruction has been eliminated. And one of the most important actions the United States could take to contribute to a world free of chemical weapons was to follow through on our own treaty commitment and with verifiable completion of destruction operations. We’ve done just that. So with respect to what comes next after the completion of destruction operations of our declared chemical weapons stockpile, the Defense Department is now moving into a phase whereby we will safely close the two destruction facilities in Colorado and Kentucky that house the remaining 10% of our chemical weapons stockpile. And closure is expected to last 3 to 4 years. During that closure phase, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, will continue verification activities until all treaty accountable waste items from the destruction process are disposed of. And the department is planning to spend over $2 billion to close out the program over the next five years.
Tom Temin Wow. Will there be at least a plaque commemorating what happened on this site?
Kingston Reif There will be, I think it’s fair to say, commemorations that what of what happened at each one of the facilities?
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