Skip to main content

Bombs in Our Backyard

How would you feel about explosives packed with chemical weapons being disposed of near where you live?  This is a question facing many as the US continues to try and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, and not surprisingly the answer is often "not in my backyard".  We have seen this yet again as the US Army struggles to find a way to dispose of old sulfur mustard munitions at the troubled Pueblo depot in Colorado.


The Chemical Weapons Convention, brought into force in 1997 and administered by the OPCW, bans the mass production and stockpiling of chemical weapons by its member states.  Importantly, it also requires that signatories destroy their existing stockpiles, which for the USA and Russia in particular has proven to be a gargantuan and on-going task.  Gone are the days when you could just dump your surplus nerve and blister agents into the sea (yes, that used to happen).

Nowadays, chemical weapons are destroyed either through high temperature incineration, or by aqueous (water-based) chemical and/or biological treatment.  Aqueous treatment options,  such as hydrolysis and neutralisation, require large and expensive processing plants, with a high degree of automation in order to protect workers.  Incineration - often with detonation of a munition's original explosive charge - is a versatile treatment alternative that mitigates some of the risks to workers.  The combustion products, however, must be dealt with, and tight controls need to be in place to ensure complete destruction of the chemical warfare agents (a research area I'm working in).  The prospect, no matter how remote, of smokestacks spewing out chemical weapons has proven to be a difficult sell to communities.

This is the bind that US Army finds itself in at Pueblo.  They have commissioned a no-expenses-spared plant in which to destroy old munitions loaded with mustard gas, but the level of operator intervention required appears to present an unacceptable risk.  Their preferred alternative of incineration, meanwhile, is being met with concern by local stakeholders.  The end result is to drag out the demilitarisation of US stockpiles, weakening diplomatic efforts to eradicate chemical weapons programs throughout the world.  Safe and prompt destruction of chemical weapons reserves is difficult, but it has to happen.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Australia's Clean Air Myth

I've been thinking a lot about air quality in Australia recently as I wrote up my submission in response to Victoria's Air Quality Statement, which will help shape a future air quality strategy for this state.  The Clean Air Statement presents a rosy picture for air quality in Victoria - our air is repeatedly described as "great" and "very good" - and this leaves the impression that air pollution is not a current health danger to Victorians.  Anecdotally, I have seen this attitude adopted by Australians around the country, who ask me why I need to research air quality in Australia and tell me that we already breathe clean air.  It is true that our air is cleaner than many of our neighbours, but this doesn't mean that it is healthy.  Air pollution in China, for instance, is one of the biggest handbrakes on development in what may soon be the world's biggest economy, and it is meaningless to compare it to Australia.

So, how big is Australia's air …

Is Someone Cheating on the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol regulates emissions of ozone depleting substances.  It is ratified by every nation and bans the use of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), long lived substances which break down the stratosphere's protective ozone layer.  The international treaty has led to decreasing atmospheric levels of CFCs, and the ozone layer is beginning to recover.  It is now being reported, however, that atmospheric levels of one CFC (trichlorofluoromethane, CFC-11) have slowed their rate of decrease, attributed to a new CFC-11 source from Asia.

The origin of these new CFC-11 emissions are unclear, and will be difficult to pinpoint.  They may be from clandestine use of the banned substance, but could also arise from leaky CFC-11 stockpiles.  An international effort to investigate this issue now appears warranted, since it threatens to undo much of the good work of the Montreal Protocol.

CFCs are not the only threat to the ozone layer.  Recent studies have shown that the o…

New Zealand's Toxic Methyl Bromide Problem

Concerns are mounting in New Zealand around the continued use of methyl bromide for fumigation.  Methyl bromide is a highly effective fumigant, but it is also depletes the ozone layer and is harmful to human health.  Under the Montreal Protocol for the regulation of ozone depleting substances, use of methyl bromide is banned for all but a few exempt quarantine purposes. This ban has seen measured atmospheric levels of this substance drop from about 10 to 8 parts per trillion. In New Zealand, however, methyl bromide usage is soaring, with a 2020 deadline to eliminate methyl bromide emissions looming.

One of the biggest exemptions for methyl bromide use is in fumigating logs for export. China and India are the main destinations and both prefer methyl bromide treatment as a bio-security measure. New Zealand is a significant exporter of logs to China and India, and in recent years has grown to become one of the biggest users of methyl bromide worldwide. The NZ government have a 2020 deadl…