Sep 27, 2008
Utah got burned in weapons screw-up
By Matthew D. LaPlante
That's how long it was supposed to take to rid Utah of its stockpile of the deadly blister agent lewisite.
The plan was to use neutralization, a chemical process that has been used in other states to eliminate swimming pool-sized stores of chemical weapons. Environmental activists broadly prefer it to incineration.
But a decade of missteps - including flawed tests that wrongly indicated neutralization didn't work - delayed the process. And just a few years after building a multimillion-dollar facility at Tooele's Deseret Chemical Depot to get the job done, the Army tore the building down.
Now the Army wants to try again - by building a new incinerator. And what was once a point of rare agreement between the military and its critics has turned contentious again.
'A lot of naiveté': The military had been destroying obsolete chemical weapons for decades before the U.S. added its signature to the international Chemical Weapons Convention on Jan. 13, 1993.
The treaty kicked things into high gear. With an international mandate to eliminate the stockpile - and armed with a 1984 National Research Council decision that incineration was safe - the Army planned to burn away its weapons by 2003, four years ahead of the convention's 2007 deadline.
Today, with just over half of the U.S. stockpile gone and perhaps a decade to go until it is all destroyed, Chemical Materials Agency senior engineer Cheryl Maggio recognizes that the initial goal was unrealistic.
But in the early 1990s, "We were a bunch of engineers who believed that there was an engineering solution to everything," Maggio said. "There was a lot of naiveté there."
Utah's 25,000 pounds of lewisite posed a particular problem because more than a third of the deadly mixture is arsenic - which the Army determined it would be unable to keep from pouring out of an incinerator smokestack. Instead, the military decided to destroy lewisite through neutralization - a process in which hot water is used to separate deadly chemical compounds into less volatile component parts.
But an analysis of the byproducts created in lab tests kept showing that not all the deadly compounds were breaking down. In other words, Maggio said, "we had agent that we couldn't get rid of."
For help, the American engineers looked north, where Canada had destroyed its own small stockpile of lewisite a few years earlier.
In 1995, the military wrote a proposal tobuild a $4.7 million facility based on Canadian specifications. Once the plant opened, the process was expected to take about 120 days, according to documents filed by the military at the time. State officials approved the plan and issued a permit. The building went up at the Chemical Agent Munition Disposal System (CAMDS) site, about 12 miles south of Tooele.
'There was a kaboom': Although the solution to its lewisite problem seemingly was in the bag, the Army faced another challenge - growing public concern about the burning of other weapons, such as mustard, VX and sarin.
In Utah, those anxieties were stoked by whistle-blowers claiming safety and environmental violations at Deseret Chemical Depot - and amplified by the history of Cold War atomic tests, which left "downwinders" exposed to nuclear fallout.
Under congressional order, the Army began exploring alternatives to incineration, using the research and development arms of CAMDS to tackle the task. The lewisite program was tabled.
Though the military ultimately held fast to studies that indicated burning was safe, the research done at CAMDS contributed to decisions elsewhere to use neutralization over incineration for some agents.
But burning continued in Utah, where the Army had gotten a head start by building its incineration facility before the tide of controversy and had found relatively receptive government leaders - particularly after agreeing to pay cash-strapped Tooele County more than $13 million in "hazard pay."
In 2002, with incineration of Utah's stockpile of other chemical agents under way, CAMDS turned back to lewisite. By then, however, several of the Canadian experts it intended to bring south had moved on to other jobs. Some had retired. At least one had died.
"Essentially, we had started to lose the basic knowledge and comfort with the technology," Maggio said.
Instead, American engineers took up the task of operating the CAMDS neutralization facility themselves, working from notes provided by their Canadian counterparts.
But on July 2, 2002, an accident led officials to fear that lewisite had escaped from the lab's ventilation system. While investigating, Maggio said, the engineers came up with a disconcerting surprise: The Canadians had indeed destroyed their lewisite, but they also had suffered a significant setback - a chemical reaction that caused an explosion.
"There was a kaboom," Maggio said. "Obviously that created a considerable amount of concern."
Neutralization efforts using other processes were under way in Maryland and expected to be used in several other states. But CAMDS never recovered from the one-two combination of its accident and the realization that the Canadian process may not have been as safe as once thought.
The process was abandoned, the building later razed.
'Important to look forward': For Chris Thomas, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, the saddest irony in the story of neutralization in Utah is the twist he learned just last week.
Long before American engineers decided to contract with Canada, the neutralization process they were using seemed to be unsuccessful. But earlier this month, Army officials told The Salt Lake Tribune that, as it turns out, it wasn't their original process that was broken.
Rather, the testing regimen was not differentiating between broken and connected chemical bonds - what Chemical Materials Agency spokesman Greg Mahall called "the proverbial 'false positive.' " The process that had been tested many years and many millions of dollars ago was, in fact, effective.
"It's frustrating that the Army's poor execution prevented Utah from having neutralization a decade ago, but it's important to look forward," Thomas said. "Neutralization is a more protective technology at a competitive price, and as a taxpayer, that's where I'd prefer to see my tax dollars spent."
Even if that means rebuilding a new facility to replace one that was knocked down just a few years ago? Thomas says yes.
But the Army says no.
A year past the original treaty deadline and with less than four years to an extended and final deadline, the military now wants to build a small, new incinerator specifically for the lewisite.
Army officials say they will tap expertise from the much larger mustard incineration plant at Deseret Chemical Depot.
The cost has not been determined, Mahall said, but it would include special filters to eliminate arsenic from emissions - the problem that prevented the burning of lewisite more than a decade ago.
Mahall acknowledged the story of lewisite in Utah reads a bit like a soap opera. But he also noted that no one ever thought about how such weapons would be destroyed when they were created.
And that, he said, has been a task that has been more complicated, expensive and timeconsuming than anyone expected.
"Does hindsight ever show room for improvements? I'll bet almost always."
Sep 25, 2008
He and a Tennessee representative say there is no place to store the radioactive waste
By Thomas Burr
WASHINGTON - Two congressmen argue in a letter sent Wednesday that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacks power to grant a license for Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions to import 20,000 tons of Italian low-level radioactive waste into the United States.
Sep 07, 2008
Industry wants to garner more trust among citizens over power source
By Judy Fahys
LAS VEGAS - The nuclear waste industry wants you.
Sep 07, 2008
Provo Daily Herald
As Spanish Fork City geared up to celebrate a new 18.9 megawatt (MW) wind power plant with a community kite festival on Sept 5 and 6, I was disappointed to read such a misleading and negative editorial on wind power from the Daily Herald ("Herald Poll: Should wind power get priority?" August 22).
The editorial claims that T. Boone Pickens' goal to see 20 percent of America's energy generated from wind power "is virtually impossible ... at least in the foreseeable future." Last year, U.S. cumulative wind energy capacity reached 16,818 MW, and wind contributed to more than 30 percent of the new U.S. generation capacity in 2007.
While the 20-percent goal will not happen overnight, achieving the 20-percent wind energy scenario is feasible, achievable, responsible and smart.
According to the Department of Energy study, "20% Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy's Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply," the nation possesses affordable wind energy resources far in excess of those needed to enable a 20 percent scenario.
The report also finds that the 20-percent wind scenario could:
• provide $205 billion in net economic benefits to the U.S. economy;
• reduce water consumption by 17 percent;
• support roughly 500,000 jobs in the U.S;
• support more than 200,000 jobs through increased local spending;
• increase annual property tax revenues to more than $1.5 billion by 2030;
• provide a new cash crop to farmers and ranchers in the form of annual lease payments of more than $600 million in 2030 ($2,500 - $4,000 per installed MW per year);
• and provide reliable energy for less than 0.5 cents per kWh.
Utah has the technical potential to contribute nearly 2,500 megawatts of wind towards the national 20-percent goal -- this excludes sensitive lands, national parks and areas unsuited for wind development (i.e. the top of Mt. Timpanogos). This amount of wind would provide enough energy for over 660,000 average Utah homes and yield a net economic benefit of approximately $2.7 billion and over 1,110 long-term jobs.
Wind power provides benefits and new revenue streams to citizens, businesses, schools, governments and communities. The Spanish Fork wind project is already providing benefits to the both Nebo School District and Utah County. During the first 20 years of operation of the wind project, the total revenue to the Nebo School District is estimated to be $1.267 million and $3.682 million during every 20-year project phase thereafter (assumes 2-percent inflation).
Utah County and the city will reap millions in direct, indirect and induced economic impacts over the life of the project.
Wind is already being integrated in utility grids across the nation without issue and is cost-competitive with traditional energy resources. One square mile of land can accommodate approximately 10 MW of wind, while leaving most of the land still available for traditional uses, such as farming, ranching, or gravel pit operations -- wind is ideal for rural communities and landowners looking for additional income. And bird lovers should worry more about house cats, cars and glass windows (the top culprits for bird mortalities). The National Audubon Society strongly supports wind power as a clean alternative energy source.
Achieving the 20-percent goal won't happen on its own; it will take a collective effort to make it a reality. Spanish Fork is doing its part. Wind energy may not be perfect, but what energy resource is perfect and without impacts? In my opinion, wind energy offers an improvement over how things have been done in the past, and Utah stands only to benefit from more wind development.
• Joe Thomas is mayor of Spanish Fork.
Sep 05, 2008
By Judy Fahys
Salt Lake Tribune LAS VEGAS - Utah has long been the safety valve for states without disposal for radiation-tainted waste.
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