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McLean plays major role in national chemical-agent destruction report

Workers at Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction PIlot Plant
Workers at Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction PIlot Plant don protective gear (Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives)

The National Research Council released a report in September that recommends the potential of new methods for monitoring the process of destroying the remainder of the nation’s aging stockpile of chemical warfare munitions that could reduce the time and expense involved by almost two thirds.

For the last two years, Vanderbilt chemist John McLean served as one of the 14 members of the NRC expert committee and was one of the co-authors of the report titled “Assessment of Agent Monitoring Strategies for the Blue Grass and Pueblo Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plants.”

“We had many meetings and briefings and site visits,” said McLean, assistant professor of chemistry. “It took a long time for us to write this report, but, in the end, I think it was definitely worthwhile.”

Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives
Assistant Professor John McLean (John Russell)

The Army has already destroyed 90 percent of the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons by high temperature incineration. That still leaves 2,611 tons of mustard gas stored in the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado and 523 tons of Sarin nerve gas and blister agents stored in the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.

In 1997 Congress established a special Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment program to develop alternative methods for safely destroying the chemical weapons at the two depots. The ACWA has developed customized chemical neutralization techniques for “demilitarizing” the two remaining stockpiles. The pilot plant for destroying the mustard gas in Pueblo is scheduled to go online in 2015 and the Blue Grass plant is scheduled to start up in 2020.

“Each of these pilot plants will potentially cost  millions per week to run and we recommend technologies that may shorten their operating and decommission time by years,” said McLean.

The key to these savings is incorporating the latest analytical techniques for directly detecting contamination in real time with exquisite  accuracy. The monitoring methods that the ACWA plans to adopt date back to the 1990s. “While these methods have allowed safe waste processing and closure activities, they are tedious and indirect,” the report summary states. By contrast, state-of-the-art methods “might allow more efficient and possibly safer operations….”

“The main issue was how to make this as safe as possible with as little threat to the local communities and the environment,” said McLean. “New monitoring strategies could play an important role, particularly in the necessary destruction of the plants after they have finished their intended tasks.”

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