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Contributed photo 

One of the supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) reactors stands at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant. The SWCO system is currently undergoing testing.

Operations are being ramped up to neutralize deadly nerve agents at the Blue Grass Army Depot, but what happens with the resulting product is still up in the air.

A failure in the $4 billion system designed to dispose of the hazardous waste has now forced Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant to change their plans.

Instead of keeping the chemical waste from the destruction of sarin and VX on-site, now it will likely be transported to another location.

Nerve agents, which have been stored safely at the site since the 1940s, are scheduled to be destroyed using a neutralization process where munitions containing the agent are taken apart and the nerve agent drained and separated from the explosive components, or energetics.

After its neutralization, the resulting product, known as hydrolysate, would have been held and tested to ensure destruction before it would enter the first-of-its-kind Super Critical Water Oxidation (SCWO) treatment.

But, when officials began to test and evaluate the structure which SCWO would operate, there was a failure in the system which could prevent them from proceeding to the four-month assessment to start production.

According to Candance Coyle, site project manager for BGCAPP, the decision to not use the facility was made because updates for operation at the facility could not adhere to the 2023 international mandate for destruction of chemical weapons.

“It was a good collaboration to work through the challenges and everything that was meant to do with SCWO was done, but it can't work with the timeline that we are under,” she told The Register Tuesday.

Now, a joint working group which will include Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, a systems contractor responsible for the project, to identify an off-site location to send the hydrolysate for destruction.

But Coyle assures this process is safe, as it was used other times to destroy other hydrolysate material in other projects in the nation.

“This has been done before,” she said. “This isn’t the first time. But I always want to assure safety is our priority…”

Coyle explained the hydrolysate product does have a high pH, but it is comparable to that of drain cleaner or liquid bleach.

A location for treatment of the hydrolysate will be determined within the upcoming months, Coyle stated.

As far as the structure which was built to house the SCWO system, Coyle stated the local Chemical Demilitarization Community Advisory Board, is working with the Defense Department to leverage their investment and transfer the facility to another Army organization.

“The facility will stay here at Blue Grass but another Army organization will take ownership of the facility,” she said.

However, the process of repairing and utilizing the facility could take anywhere from three to five years, Coyle said.

But the good news, she said, is that 100% of the GB campaign has been completed and ended early for the first time ever in demilitarization history.

The Mustard projectile destruction is over 50% complete, Coyle added.

BGCAPP is preparing for the VX Campaign to begin sometime either late this year, or early next. So far, 77.5 tons of the overall stockpile has been destroyed.

Chemical stockpile destruction operations began in Colorado in March 2015 and in Kentucky in June 2019. Both facilities are on target to complete operations by 2023.

“I cannot say enough good things about this team,” Coyle said. “...For the most part, I just want to say that we are committed to destroying the stockpile in a safe and efficient way."

Reach Taylor Six at 624-6695 or follow her on Twitter at @TaylorSixRR.

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