updated 9/9/2004 10:21:15 AM ET 2004-09-09T14:21:15

Workers on Wednesday destroyed the first nerve gas rocket in a long-delayed $2.4 billion project to dispose of chemical weapons left over from the Cold War.

An electrical problem with a trap door designed to release chopped-up metal parts temporarily delayed disposal of the M-55 rocket in one of the four incinerators built for the Army project at its Umatilla Chemical Depot.

An emergency shut-off switch had been inadvertently pressed, preventing the door from opening, said Army spokeswoman Mary Binder. Technicians overrode the system with a jumper cable to deliver the rocket parts to an incinerator that burns off any traces of the remaining nerve agent.

The process began Wednesday morning when the rocket was transferred to a concrete-reinforced explosive containment room, where it was punched open and drained of about a gallon of sarin, a deadly nerve agent.

The depot plans to continue disposals Thursday to test an identical system that will eventually run in tandem to speed up disposal, Binder said.

Binder earlier had called the first rocket disposal “an incredibly historic day. This is a Cold War-era mission that is today starting to end.”

Carrying gas masks and syringes of antidote, depot workers used remote-controlled equipment to begin disposal of about 3,700 tons of nerve gas rockets and other chemical weapons stockpiled since 1962.

Disposal plans call for each sarin-laden rocket to be chopped into eight pieces before they are fed to the decontaminating furnace.

The Umatilla depot was built in 1941 and was used to store munitions from World War II through Desert Storm in 1991. Since 1991 it has stored only chemical weapons, including sarin and VX. More than 220,000 weapons are scheduled to be destroyed, officials said.

Local health concerns
The rocket’s destruction comes after years of delays in construction and testing at the depot, and in spite of a lawsuit still pending in the Oregon Court of Appeals seeking to block the process.

The opposition group GASP, which is seeking the injunction, says burning the weapons risks an accidental release of chemical agents. The group is advocating a chemical neutralization process instead, a newer technology the Army uses at four of eight chemical storage sites around the country.

Sugarman said the opening-day glitch with the trap door confirmed his group’s criticisms that the Army cannot operate the incinerator safely. The holdup left the rocket’s sheared-off explosive in the chamber for several hours before it was destroyed.

Binder said the delay posed no safety threat because the rocket part was stable, and within the 30-inch-thick walls of the explosive containment room.

Burning was to have begun Aug. 16, but was postponed at the last minute when ventilation system monitors during a trial showed larger amounts than expected of a test chemical in the charcoal filters.

12 percent at Umatilla
The Umatilla depot holds about 12 percent of the nation’s remaining chemical weapons. The military began stockpiling rockets, artillery shells, bombs, land mines and sprayers containing nerve and mustard agents beginning in 1962.

The 7.3 million pounds of weapons are scheduled to be destroyed by 2010 at a cost of $2.4 billion.

The Army now has three working chemical weapons incinerators in the United States. The others are in Tooele, Utah, and Anniston, Ala. A fourth is expected to open next spring in Pine Bluff, Ark.

Another four sites — at Newport, Ind., Blue Grass Ky., Edgewood, Del., and Pueblo, Colo. — use chemical neutralization.

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