Stockpiles of US munitions could be degrading at a perilous rate.

Stockpiles of US munitions could be degrading at a perilous rate.

A report sponsored by the US army has raised concerns about the stability and safety of the country’s remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. Produced by the US National Academies’ National Research Council, the report recommends that the army should improve its monitoring of the stockpiles and try to enhance its understanding of exactly how the weapons degrade.

For the past 50 years, the army has maintained stockpiles of sarin, VX and mustard gas at eight military depots spread throughout the US. The army has gradually been disposing of these chemical agents, but there are now fears that the remaining weapons have been stored for so long that there is a danger they may begin to leak out of their containers as they degrade.

The main problem highlighted by the report is a general lack of knowledge about exactly how long the chemicals have been stored and how they degrade over time.

The report identifies a number of areas where information is sparse: how changes in temperature effect degradation, whether there is a risk of explosion from hydrogen forming as mustard gas degrades, and whether degradation of the chemical weapons will rapidly speed up once any stabilising chemicals have broken down.

The report makes a number of recommendations for how the army can improve its monitoring activities in order to determine whether there is any danger of a leak. These include regular testing of the chemical agents, setting up databases to record the information and using statistical analysis to identify possible trends as early as possible.

Nevertheless, according to Peter Lederman, chair of the committee that produced the report and a former professor of chemical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, there is only one real way to ensure the safety of these stockpiles. ’The swift destruction of the munitions is ultimately the only effective way to reduce risks to the public,’ he says.

Jon Evans