Last U.S. Chemical Weapons Stockpile Set To Be Destroyed
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This country's last chemical weapons stockpile will be destroyed from Richmond, Ky. Stu Johnson of WEKU reports.
STU JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Blue Grass Army Depot has been home to aging chemical munitions for more than a half century. Five hundred thirty-two tons of World War II-era rockets and projectiles, filled with mustard and nerve agent, are stored in grass-covered concrete bunkers.
RODNEY MCCUTCHEON: Good morning. Good morning. And good morning.
JOHNSON: Blue Grass Chemical Activity commander Rodney McCutcheon greeted media at a bus tour to see how they'll be destroyed. Mustard agent will be placed in a detonation chamber. But it's not an explosive process. High heat renders the munitions tame. A neutralization process, followed by a second high-pressure cleaning will be used on the more lethal nerve agent. Two workers donned inflatable suits with gas masks to show how they'll prepare to enter the nerve agent transfer area. At a storage site, Jerry Reeves with the Chemical Activity crew says weapons will be monitored even before they are moved.
JERRY REEVES: These things are old. And moving them around - in the event it causes vapor emissions, we would know it here. We can get the stuff back inside and take care of it there.
JOHNSON: It cost $5 billion for the massive complex needed to destroy the weapons. It will employ more than 1,200 people. Site project manager Jeff Brubaker says intense training is a priority.
JEFF BRUBAKER: Completion of operator training and certification. There will be daily emergency response drills that will be performed. At the end of April, we'll perform a two-week integrated operation demonstration.
JOHNSON: An international treaty requires disposal of chemical munitions. Brubaker says up to six treaty representatives will be onsite throughout the process. The Army first proposed disposing of these chemical weapons in 1984, but it wanted to burn them. That was met by vocal opposition from local citizens. Some 90,000 people live in the central Kentucky county. Over time, neutralization was determined to be the best option. Craig Williams, who co-chairs a citizen's advisory board, says he's excited to finally be at what he called the eve of getting rid of the weapons.
CRAIG WILLIAMS: We've moved from a period of controversy and antagonism to a period of cooperation and transparency between the community and the military.
TIFFANY JUSTICE: That is cool (laughter).
ARIA: Hi. Hi.
JOHNSON: At a nearby park, Richmond resident Tiffany Justice and her 11-month-old daughter Aria spend time in the playground. She says she's glad the munitions are going to be gone in a few years.
JUSTICE: It's a very family-oriented area. So I think not having to worry about that is very nice.
JOHNSON: Destruction begins this June. The entire stockpile is scheduled to be eliminated by the end of 2023, at which point the U.S. will no longer have any stored chemical weapons. For NPR News, I'm Stu Johnson in Richmond, Ky.
[EDITOR'S NOTE on April 8: Because of a technical glitch, the audio in an earlier version of this report played at a slightly faster speed than it should have. That problem has been fixed.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.