WASHINGTON — The Army lit up an incinerator in Tooele, Utah, on Thursday to begin a costly and controversial effort to destroy one of the 20th century's most horrific weapons: 31,000 tons of poison gas and associated delivery systems.
The first weapon to be destroyed, an M-55 rocket loaded with a quart of GB nerve agent, was fed into a gigantic machine that punched three holes into the rocket body and then drained the nerve agent into pipes feeding a high-temperature incinerator.
The rocket was then chopped up into segments by massive mechanical shears and fed into another series of incinerators, which reduced it to aluminum scrap and ash.
Eventually, the Army plans to have eight plants like Tooele operating 24 hours a day, representing one of the most ambitious demilitarization projects in history. The United States has pledged to destroy all its chemical weapons and has joined with every major power in negotiating an international treaty to ban their possession.
The Army incineration project will cost $12 billion. In addition, the military will spend $19 billion to locate and destroy chemical weapons buried in about 215 pits around the country.
The massive effort has been stymied for years by technical delays and political battles, leading to massive cost overruns and delays. Congress originally expected to pay just $1.8 billion and wanted the job done by 1994. The Army said Thursday it would complete the job by 2004.
As the Army struggled with the tricky designs for robotic incinerators, local citizen and environmental groups argued that the plants posed a risk of emitting poison clouds over their communities. Getting required permits became increasingly difficult.
In recent days, federal courts and state regulators in Utah rejected all the last-ditch efforts to block the plant, opening the way for Army officials to throw the switch in Tooele, which is about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Army officials hoped to destroy 60 of the M-55 missiles Thursday.
"I am indeed pleased," Assistant Army Secretary Gil Decker said Thursday at the Pentagon. "These classes of weapons--often referred to, in addition to nuclear weapons, as weapons of mass destruction--are pretty awful things."
The Tooele site contains about 44% of the entire U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons, loaded into various systems such as rockets, gravity bombs, artillery shells and spray tanks. Many are leaking, making their destruction all the more urgent, Army officials say.
To reduce the risk, the weapons are transported into the plant inside blast-proof shells called oncs. The air inside the plant is held at a partial vacuum, so that any leakage of poison stays in the building.
If a bomb or rocket blows up, workers are protected by steel-reinforced blast walls as thick as 28 inches. Everything is run from a computer center that looks much like a space agency launch-control center.
The incinerator, operating at 2,700 degrees, is supposed to destroy the nerve and mustard gases, leaving only water vapor and brine. A scrubber system inside the smokestack removes any unburned residues and byproducts, Army officials said.
But critics say the plant will routinely release dioxin. Steve Jones, former chief safety officer at the plant, became a whistle-blower and alleged that the plant had numerous safety flaws. The environmental community cited Jones' allegations in seeking to stop the plant, but the Army said its investigations failed to substantiate his claims.
Defense Department officials insist that the Tooele plant has the best possible technology and poses no risk to the community, either in terms of a catastrophic gas release or a long-term release of hazardous byproducts.
Nonetheless, a small prototype facility operated by the Army on Johnston Atoll, about 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, has twice released clouds of unburned nerve agent over the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a $50,000 Environmental Protection Agency fine against the Army.
Local officials are taking no chances. Tooele has built an $11-million emergency communications center linked to 37 emergency sirens around the county. Local sheriff's deputies have gas masks in the trunks of their cars. And the Tooele Fire Department owns two mobile decontamination units that would help cleanse residents exposed to poison.