The Army is proposing the removal of a few dozen Cold War-era chemical weapons from storage in central Kentucky so the rocket motors can be separated from the deadly chemical agent and shipped away for analysis.
The M55 rockets, manufactured in the 1960s, carry deadly VX and GB chemical agents. Army officials want to take a sample of 44 of the rockets stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot and remove the motors so the substance that propels the rocket can be analyzed for stability.
Lt. Col. Christopher Grice, commander of the Blue Grass Chemical Activity group, said it’s the first time this type of rocket separation has been performed at the Kentucky depot since the 1980s. Grice said a long permitting process means the operation likely won’t happen until early 2014.
“The testing is specifically on the propellant in the rocket,” Grice said to reporters Tuesday in Richmond. He said Army officials wanted to test some samples from Kentucky because of its climate compared to other chemical weapons storage facilities around the country.
“It’s really because of our conditions here, the higher humidity,” Grice said.
The motor component on the M55 contains a solid propellant, which fuels the rocket. Grice said officials want to test to see if a stabilizer mixed with the propellant is deteriorating, which could make the propellant more volatile.
The depot has a stockpile of 69,000 M55 rockets and a total of about 523 tons of chemical weapons. The weapons are slated for destruction by 2023.
Craig Williams, a member of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, said Tuesday there is an increased risk anytime aging chemical weapons are moved from storage.
“The mere existence of these things creates risks,” Williams said. But he said he is satisfied the Army would take the proper precautions during the removal.
“The potential risk to the general population is not going to raise significantly from what it is today, because the safety measures they’re putting in place are extraordinary,” he said.
The 44 rockets would be separated from the nerve agent and the motors moved to a separate igloo at the depot. Officials would then transport 25 of the motors to the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Picatinny, N.J., for analysis. The remaining 19 motors would be kept in Kentucky for future analysis.
The rocket motor assembly is attached to the nerve agent component by screw threads, and Grice says a team of five would be able to separate about three of the rockets in a workday.
He said it would take about a month to complete the separation.