Disposing of Chemical Warfare Agents and Munitions Stockpile

Arms Control Today, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Disposing of Chemical Warfare Agents and Munitions Stockpile


There are at least two important reasons to dispose of U.S. chemical warfare agents and munitions stockpiles without deliberate delay. One is the laudable intent to rid the world of these dangerous weapons of mass destruction. The other is the pragmatic observation that the aging stockpile is becoming increasingly dangerous for U.S. citizens. In terms of laudable intent, the United States has an opportunity to lead by example, and as for the threat to its citizens, it has the obligation to act responsibly.

A key element in the new Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that will come into effect as early as January 13, 1995 (if 61 more states ratify it by mid-July), is that all parties will be required to destroy their chemical weapons (CW) and munitions within 10 years.

The two states most clearly affected by this mandate are the United States and Russia, which have by far the largest CW stockpiles and had the most elaborate programs. In the case of the United States, the requirement came well before CWC negotiations were completed and the convention was opened for signature. For more than half a century the United States has maintained a stockpile of highly toxic chemical agents and munitions. In 1985, Congress passed Public Law 99-145, which directed the Defense Department to destroy at least 90 percent of the U.S. unitary chemical agent and munitions stockpile. The program was expanded to treat the entire stockpile and, after setting several intermediate dates, Congress directed the Army to dispose of the entire stockpile by the end of 2004.

One might expect, with the universally endorsed goal of ridding the world of these hazardous materials and the development of a means for their destruction, that the disposal program would be welcomed and would move forward promptly. But that is not the case. Rather, the destruction program is immersed in controversy because some environmentally concerned and other critics believe that incineration is not a safe technology and are calling for "alternative technologies."

THE CONTROVERSY

In simple terms, there are two competing agendas at work. The first is the safe disposal of the stockpile. That has been, and remains, the sole concern of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Review and Evaluation of the Army Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program (Stockpile Committee).

The NRC is the study arm of the independent National Academy of Sciences; the committee was formed as an NRC standing committee in 1987 at the request of the undersecretary of the Army to monitor the disposal program and to review and advise on relevant issues.

The second agenda is the disposal of incinerators. While opponents of incineration raise sincere environmental or related safety concerns, the Stockpile Committee is neither for nor against incineration per se, and does not wish to engage in that issue.(1)

But with the two agendas in competition, there is growing reason for concern that the anti-incineration agenda may have an adverse impact on the safety of the stockpile disposal program; while debate and more "studies" could lead to dangerous indecision, the CW stockpile already poses more of a threat to U.S. citizens and the environment than any dangers posed by the carefully examined incineration method for destroying the stockpiles. Moreover, a portion of the CW stockpile is degenerating and will pose a far greater storage risk. It is important that the United States proceed with its destruction program using the proven incineration technology even while simultaneously looking at other possible technologies that might eventually prove to have marginal--if any--advantage.

DISPOSAL OPTION STUDIES

In the 1970s the Army commissioned studies of different disposal technologies and tested several. In 1982, incineration was selected as the disposal method and in 1984 the NRC Committee on Demilitarizing Chemical Munitions and Agents endorsed this selection after reviewing a range of technologies. …

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Disposing of Chemical Warfare Agents and Munitions Stockpile
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