Destroying nerve and mustard agents

As part of the ratification of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Conventions, an international treaty to destroy chemical weapons and production facilities, a Bechtel-led team was contracted in 2003 to help the United States complete its obligations under this treaty. Under this U.S. Department of Defense contract, the Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, a joint venture of Bechtel National and Parsons Government Services, will design, build, systemize, test, operate, and close the first–of–a–kind plant to safely destroy the weapons stockpile at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky. When complete, the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant will destroy 523 tons of nerve and mustard agent within 100,000 M55 rockets and artillery projectiles stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. 

For more information visit the Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass website.

Bechtel has tackled four chemical demilitarization projects at U.S. military sites: Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, Kentucky (ongoing); Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, Colorado (ongoing); Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, Alabama (completed); and Aberdeen Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, Maryland (completed).

First Munition Destroyed

First Munition Destroyed

In June of 2019, the Blue Grass plant began processing chemical weapons in its Static Detonation Chamber, marking the beginning of the end for the last chemical weapons stockpile remaining in the U.S.

The first munition destroyed was a World War II-era 155-millimeter artillery projectile containing mustard agent. This control-room monitor shot shows technicians loading the projectile for processing on June 7, 2019.

Ready for Recycling

Ready for Recycling

After processing, empty munition bodies are ready for recycling as scrap metal. Operations on the nerve agent portion of the stockpile are scheduled to begin in Fall of 2019.

Long history

Long history

Construction of the neutralization facility at Aberdeen—the first such project—had just passed the halfway mark when America suffered the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Mindful that unused chemical weapons might be a terrorist target, the U.S. Army asked Bechtel to accelerate the chemical demilitarization program. The project team managed to finish eliminating the mustard agent at Aberdeen a year ahead of schedule.

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What are chemical weapons?

Contrary to popular belief, these chemicals are not gases. In their original form, they are liquids. When stored for a long period of time, they can become thick and sludge-like. Destroying chemical weapons benefits everyone with greater safety and security—physical as well as environmental—and puts an end to costs associated with managing the stockpile over the long haul.

How the weapons are destroyed.

The stockpile at the Blue Grass depot are being destroyed in two ways.

The munitions containing mustard agent are being destroyed in a Static Detonation Chamber that uses heat to consume the toxic material. Any exhaust is filtered through a sophisticated filtration system.

For the weapons containing nerve agents, specialists operating sophisticated robotic machinery will disassemble munitions and extract the chemical agent and “energetics,” or explosives. Using either caustic or water hydrolysis, the team chemically decomposes and neutralizes both agent and energetic compounds, rendering them as hydrolysates.

Next, we will destroy the agent hydrolysate and the energetics hydrolysate using supercritical water oxidation, which subjects them to very high temperature and pressure. This process breaks down the agent compounds into carbon dioxide, water, and salts.

Destruction of Chemical Weapons Underway

Destruction of blister agent began in 2019 at the Explosive Destruction Technology (EDT) facility. 

Mustard projectiles are transported to EDT in Enhanced On-Site Containers. The team will utilize the EDT to destroy the entire stockpile of mustard projectiles, due to the liquid agent becoming thick and sludge-like. The Static Detonation Chamber mentioned above will electrically-generate heat at more than 1,000°F to detonate or deflagrate the munitions, destroying the agent.

Agent destruction will be completed in 2023, based on the current schedule and Department of Defense funding. Eventually, the team will perform an environmental closure of the facility.

What happens after the weapons are destroyed?

The areas of the facility that have come in contact with a chemical agent will be decontaminated and the equipment dismantled. The disposition of the remainder of the facility has not yet been determined and will be negotiated by representatives of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment program, and Blue Grass Army Depot.