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Senior Officials Host Media Roundtable on the Successful Destruction of the U.S.' Declared Chemical Weapons Stockpile

KELLY FLYNN: Thank you all for joining us today for this media roundtable.  This media roundtable is to discuss the United States successfully completing destruction operations of its declared chemical weapons stockpile.  This is not a general DOD brief, so I'd ask you to hold any questions that are not related to this subject matter for a later briefing.

My name is Kelly Flynn and I am from the DOD Press Office. I will be moderating today's media roundtable.  Participating with us in the room today are the Honorable Douglas Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Arms-Control Verification and Compliance from the U.S. State Department, Mr. Kingston Reif, deputy assistant secretary of defense for threat reduction and arms control, and Mr. Michael Abaie, program executive officer, assembled chemical weapons alternatives.

We will begin the media roundtable with opening remarks, starting with Mr. Bush.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF THE ARMY DOUGLAS BUSH:  So thank you for joining us today as we make history, the destruction of the United States' declared chemical weapons stockpile.

The U.S.'s destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles in a safe, secure and environmentally-responsible manner was a difficult task requiring many years to complete.  By January of 2012, nearly 90 percent of these weapons were eliminated.  Destroying the remainder posed a greater challenge because it involved the more complicated approach of neutralizing these munitions chemicals.

We are proud to announce that the final two chemical munitions destruction sites, Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky and the Army's Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, completed their operations in June of 2023.

Important work remains despite this achievement.  We must eliminate secondary waste and decommission the chemical munitions destruction facility at Blue Grass Army Depot.  These tasks should be completed within two or three years.

Most importantly, I want to thank the thousands of federal military and civilian employees and contractors for helping the United States support the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' vision of a world free of chemical weapons.  Some of the people who have worked at these sites, I've met many of them, worked for decades in this industry moving from site to site where their expertise was needed most.  So there's a rare, very real human story here about the amazing work that these dedicated folks did that I hope we'll be able to tell more in the weeks and months ahead.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE MALLORY STEWART:  Thank you so much.  I want to reiterate our thanks to the thousands and thousands of people that have worked to achieve this effort.  The United States achieved a significant milestone in fulfilling its obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention to destroy all of its chemical weapons.  This is an important moment not only for the United States, but also for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, states' parties to the CWC and the entire world.  This achievement is indicative of the important role that international cooperation and transparency play in arms control and disarmament.

The United States is proud to have achieved destruction of the CW stockpile in a manner that mitigated effects on the environment, was responsive to local communities that hosted our destruction sites and ensured the safety of the thousands of dedicated members of the U.S. workforce who carried out this important task.  We again thank all of those who contributed to this success.

With complete destruction of the U.S. stockpile, the United States is proud once again to reiterate its continued commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Not only has the United States completed destruction in accordance with its obligations, but we have also contributed to the chemical weapons stockpile destruction of other states' parties as we worked and continue to work to achieve a world free of chemical weapons threats.

As we celebrate this achievement, we must acknowledge that the international community's job is not yet done.  The threat posed by the possession, development and use of chemical weapons still exists and requires our continued focus.  To this end, the United States will continue to support the OPCW through its active engagement and financial support.  Thank you.

DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KINGSTON REIF:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks for being here.  My office, the Office of Threat Reduction and Arms Control within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs under the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Sustainment has been responsible for managing and overseeing the assembled chemical weapons alternatives, or ACWA programs' destruction of the last 10 percent of the U.S. declared chemical weapons stockpile housed in Colorado and Kentucky and ensuring the department's compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Assistant Secretary Stewart has already described why it was so vital to meet the nation's obligations under the convention to destroy our stockpile by the 30th of September of this year for the viability of the Chemical Weapons Convention and for our moral and diplomatic leadership.  The only thing I would add and foot-stomp is that the most important action the United States can take to contribute to a world free of chemical weapons and lead by example is to follow through on our own treaty commitments, and with verifiable completion of destruction operations last week, we have done just that.

In my opening comments, I'd like to highlight why this achievement is so important for the Department of Defense and what it means for the department's efforts to counter chemical weapons threats moving forward.

Since ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, through last Friday, the United States destroyed over 30,000 metric tons of declared chemical agent contained in nearly three and a half million chemical munitions, over 22,500,110,  one-ton containers containing chemical agent, and over 55,500 bottles and containers containing chemical agent.

The department, as we've heard, takes great pride in the transparent way in which we have undertaken our destruction effort, our sterling safety record, our dedication to protecting the environment, our engagement with the local communities in Colorado and Kentucky, and the financial and technical support, as Assistant Secretary Stewart mentioned, we have provided to other nations to meet their chemical Weapons Convention commitments.

This achievement has relied on decades of hard work by thousands of federal, military, and civilian employees and contractors.  As a nation, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who dedicated their time, talent, and effort to this mission.

Because this was dangerous work, these weapons were not designed to be taken apart.  They had to be painstakingly disassembled in reverse.  They were designed to detonate on the battlefield and inflict horrendous suffering on their victims, a terrible legacy of the post-World War II and early Cold War era.

Of course, the destruction effort in Colorado and Kentucky has not been without its challenges.  It has been a long, arduous, and expensive journey.  I think it's important to point out that as recently as five years ago, the milestone we are highlighting today, it was not clear that it could be achieved.

The progress since Mr. Abaie assumed the mantle of PEO of the Aqua Program has been remarkable.  The program's turnaround is a major acquisition success story, one defined by proactive risk management, resourceful problem solving, and technological innovation, and it has been a team effort.

The completion of the operation's mission means that the significant resources spent on demilitarization can be redirected to support other high priority department missions, once closure of the destruction facilities is completed.  Closure is expected to be a multi-year process.

Though the destruction mission is over, the Defense Department will not cease in its efforts to support the effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, including by working to ensure the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons readiness to face current and future chemical weapons threats.

As Assistant Secretary Stewart has noted, the threat posed by chemical weapons has not disappeared with the — with the destruction of the last declared munition in Kentucky.  Thank you very much.

MICHAEL ABAIE:  Thank you, Mr. Reif. Good afternoon, everyone, and I'd also like to thank you all for joining us today.  As you heard, the Program Executive Office for the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternative is responsible for the destruction of the last remaining 10 percent of the U.S. stockpile at Pueblo, Colorado and at Bluegrass, Kentucky.

So we safely destroyed over 780,000 munitions that were filled with mustard in projectiles or mortars in Pueblo, Colorado on 22 June of this year.  And last Friday, we destroyed the last rocket of GB nerve agent in Richmond, Kentucky at the Bluegrass Army Depot.  We had over 100,000 rounds of mustard and nerve agent, both VX and sarin, at that location.

While the destruction is complete, we still have much more work to do.  We still have to decontaminate and decommission the facility and demolish the facility.  We're working very closely with the local communities to ensure that, you know, whatever we can transport to them that is not contaminated, can be safely done so.

As everyone has mentioned, there has been many, many thousands of dedicated professionals who have dedicated many, many years of their life. In fact, for some, their entire career has been dedicated to this task of getting rid of all these stockpiled munitions.

A majority of our workforce will continue to stay with us as we go through closure.  As Mr. Bush identified, there'll be another two or three years of work being done in that area to completely close those facilities, and we'll have to go through the administrative closure, making sure that we meet all of the safety and permit requirements we have to meet each one of those states.

So I hope that you can help us in translating to the many people that have helped in support of this work, the dedicated professional manner that they've gone about doing this job safely, without any incident over the last five years.  This is a very dangerous type of work that we do, and again, we've continued to focus on the safety aspect and the environmental aspects of this as we go through closure.

Additionally, I'd like to thank the local communities.  We have worked very, very closely with the local communities to ensure that — as partners, you know, they have supported the U.S. Army, for allowing these stockpiles to be stored in their backyards and near them.  We have worked very closely with them.  They were part and parcel to the Aqua Program in selecting the technologies that were used in each of these sites.  These are first of a kind technologies that we put in place, designed and constructed and tested and then now operated.

And I'd also like to thank our contractors, Bechtel as well as Amentum, for doing a phenomenal job in making sure that we get to this point safely and on time to meet the 30 September 2023 CWC commitment.  Thank you.

MS. FLYNN:  Thank you for those opening remarks.  We'll now open the discussion for questions.  I ask that you each state your name and which outlet you're from, and I ask our participants to state their name before they speak for our Zoom participants.

Q: Why did it take so long to destroy the last 10 percent of munitions? What was the total cost? Have you helped other nations in their demil process and are those operations still going on?

MR. ABAIE:  So if you'll allow me to take the first part about why did it take so long for the last 10 percent—when we started the demil process, incineration was the technology that the Army had used to destroy those 90 percent. Their large ton containers were done with neutralization.

The two communities worked with Congress, their congressional delegations, and asked that we do not use incineration.  So, Congress mandated that the Army evaluate other technologies — two technologies per site, to ensure that we have alternative processes.

So, during that time, that's how the ACWA Program was actually started back in the early 2000s, and in 2003, the selections were made for each of the sites.  At Pueblo, it was neutralization followed by bio-treatment, and in Kentucky, it was neutralization followed by supercritical water oxidation.

Unfortunately, as we developed that system, it wasn't as safe as we had all intended it, so we ended up shipping the hydrolysate — that's that byproduct of neutralization off-site.  So that's why it took so long — we had to actually come up with new alternative technologies, then design, construct, build, test, and obviously we had some technical challenges during that process but that's why it's taken so long.

And roughly, it's taken about a little over $13.5 billion to do the last 10 percent.

MR. REIF:  On the second part of your question, Jim, I can start on that.  As I mentioned, the U.S. government and the Department of Defense are very proud of the support that we have provided to other nations to meet their CWC commitments.  Those nations include Russia, Syria, Albania, and Libya.  I'll defer to Assistant Secretary Stewart to add anything more to that.

But primarily, financial assistance to other countries destroying their chemical weapons stockpiles has come via the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which is executed by the Defense Reduction Agency.

MS. STEWART:  Yeah, thank you.  I'll follow up on Kingston's point but I also want to add to the first point, that really the responsiveness of the U.S. government to local communities' concerns about the destruction sites was sort of more expansive and more collaborative than I've seen, you know, in many situations, ensuring the safety of both the workers but also a continuing comfort level of the local communities and the politicians with the processes that were being developed, having a really expansive interaction and involvement of those that were concerned, pulling them into the conversation, showing them the technology and ensuring that there would be no danger to the community, and that we had the very highest of mitigation capacity for any effects on the environment.

So really, you know, huge thanks to all of those contracted and all of those federal government workers that really took deep responsibility for this process went above and beyond in ensuring both the safety, health, and quite frankly, the satisfaction of the local communities with this process.  And I think that really added to some of the time that went into it but I think the overarching success of this mission.  So that was one point I would contribute to the initial comment.

On Kingston's point, you know, we have made a very coherent and extensive effort to help other countries with the destruction of their stockpiles you know, very publicly with the Syrian chemical weapons program, the destruction, ensuring that the OPCW had complete transparency and insight into the declared chemical weapons of Syria, and I think that's been very public but I would note that we've also assisted extensively with the Russian destruction of their declared chemical weapons stockpile and Albania and Libya, as Kingston mentioned.

Q:  Which countries still have chemical weapon stockpiles?

MS. STEWART:  Well, if you look at our compliance report, we have questions about some of the destructions of China's stockpile, we also have concerns specifically with respect to the undeclared chemical weapons that Russia is maintaining and has utilized in the Skripals and Navalny cases especially.

MS. FLYNN:  Thank you.  Now we'll go back to the Zoom again to Tara Copp with AP.

Q:  Thanks for doing this.  I was wondering about the potential costs and scope of the environmental cleanup, some of the things that you're more concerned about at these sites?

And then secondly, because we do have Secretary Bush in the room, if he could talk about the decision on the cluster munitions and how that kind of relieves pressure on the 155 stocks that he's been working to manage?  Thanks.

MR. BUSH:  I'll let my technical experts address the first part of your question.

MR. ABAIE:  Sure.  Absolutely.  So, with regard to the environmental impacts, so as Ms. Stewart already indicated and I would like to emphasize again, safety to the workforce, the communities, and the environment is really the cornerstone of the ACWA Program.

So as part of the design of the facility, we've ensured that we have significant environmental codings in all of our facilities, and we minimized where the actual munitions go in to get destroyed.

So when we talk about making sure we meet all environmental requirements, we actually work with the state regulators, as well as EPA, to ensure that we have cleaned the facility to the requirements that are made and imposed on us by the state and the EPA.  So we, again, ensure that the facilities are going to be fully decontaminated to where it can be no longer detected and meet the safe requirements in those areas.

As far as the costs associated with the closure of the facilities, over the next two years, three years, it's approximately $2 to $3 billion left to complete the cleaning of the facilities and then closing it out.

MR. BUSH:  So, Tara, on the cluster munitions, I can't add anything to what the President, the National Security Advisor, and the Undersecretary for Policy have laid out regarding the dynamics of that decision.

MS. FLYNN:  Let's go to Alex Horton on Zoom.

Q:  Hey.  Yeah, thanks for doing this.  So I had a couple questions for you.  You know, I failed high school biology, so if you can give us sort of, like, a layman's terms of how the process actually works when it comes to I think what you call bio-treatment?  And, you know, just, like, the process in general, if you can describe how it worked to safely demilitarize these?  That would be helpful.

And the second part is, you know, we've heard from the administration already that, you know, this is sort of, you know, the first time a declared class of weapons of mass destruction has been brought to an end.  Another way to say that is the U.S. was the last to achieve this.  You've spoken about the environmental concerns, the complexity.  Can you give us other reasons why the U.S. was last, compared to everyone else?  What were some of the challenges that you faced?

MR. ABAIE:  So again, let me see if I can take the technical piece of this.  With regard to each of the facilities, again, for Pueblo, we used neutralization. So, once we bring the munitions into the facility, it's all handled by robotics, there's no human interaction except for when they need to go and do some repairs or maintenance work. 

So when the munition enters those rooms where they’re chemical munitions will be emptied, the projectiles and the mortars would be drained of their mustard.  That mustard was then transferred into a cylinder where it's mixed with high temperature water and caustic, and that process breaks down the — it's a chemical reaction where it breaks down the mustard agent down to what we call hydrolysate. 

The hydrolysate, at that point, can be fed into a reactor, what we call a bioreactor, and that basically has microbes in it.  It's very similar to the public septic system that we have.  It allows it to eat, digest the sulphur that's associated with it. And what you get after that is basically water and salt cakes. So, the water is processed back into the facility to reused and the salt cakes is sent into designated landfills.

At Bluegrass it's very similar. Once we bring the rockets or projectiles into the room where it can be used, it is drained. The nerve agent is drained and goes through again a cylinder, hot water. Caustic is used to mix it to break down the nerve agent to a much lower toxic chemical and then shipped at offsite to a designated licensed facility for incineration.

We also brought in technologies to do thermal destruction for some of the very challenging munitions at both sites. These were some of the older ones, mostly mustard, some nerve agents at Bluegrass, but these were brought in because we could not punch and drain the mustard out of them. They had solidified over the years so it would be very problematic for us to drain it.

So these thermal units called static detonation chambers, a technology that was developed in Europe and we brought it over here. We use it in Anniston as part of the challenges that they had in Anniston, Alabama. We continue to use it at Bluegrass as well is in Pueblo.

Again, it would elevate the temperatures of the munition so much that it would open up and the mustard agent would be exposed to the high temperatures, and it would basically turn itself in a neutral by product in gas, and which are captured and then again we evaluate all of the affluent gases to insure that we meet all the environmental aspects of it.

So that's it from technical perspective on how we were able to do all this and move it out. I think the second part of the question is why did it take us so long to do this. Again, with the congressional mandate that the program had gotten, it's to evaluate new technologies. So, the incineration technology that was originally developed and used safely for those 90 percent of the stockpile at seven other sites, those would not be able to be used at the last two locations.

We have to work with the local communities and with lots of different contracting folks to come up with new technologies. Again, lots of technologies were evaluated, each of the communities were part in parcel in the selection of the final prototype technologies that we would use to build, design and test and operate the facilities with.

It was a lot of work that had to be done. Obviously technical challenges were part of that. It took us a long time to resolve those technical challenges as we move forward. Again, working very closely with the local communities to insure that they were part in parcel to everything that we did as we moved forward.

I would say that, you know, it has not been an easy process. A lot of challenges, a lot of things have to be modified. We have to identify risks in advance and get after it. But again, I'll go back to my original statement, the corner stone of the program was to insure maximum safety to the workforce, to the local communities and the environment and that overwrote anything else that we had to do.

So anything that we looked at to evaluate or to do, we had to make sure to meet those standards and that's why it took us such a long time for us to get to this point.

MR. REIF:  And if I could just add a few things. Alex, thanks for the question. You know Mike referenced the environmental, the regulatory and the safety requirements and how stringent they rightly are and I would say that those requirements are second to none globally. Second thing I would say is that the United States has declared and destroyed the entirety of its declared chemical weapons stockpile.  Russia has completed destruction of its declared stockpile with our support, as Assistant Secretary Stewart referenced.

Syria has completed destruction of its declared stockpile, again, with our support, as Assistant Secretary Stewart has referenced.

But as Assistant Secretary Stewart also referenced, you know, the State Department's compliance report notes that both of those countries possess undeclared stockpiles of chemical weapons and both countries have actually used chemical weapons.

And then finally, I just want to highlight what I said in my opening remarks about the turnaround that this program has had under Mike's leadership.  It's been a long and arduous journey, but when Mike took over in 2018, it wasn't clear that the milestone that we are highlighting and celebrating today was achievable.  And it's thanks to his incredible leadership and his focus on risk management, the ingenuity of his team and the workforce, the proactive problem-solving that we were able to complete the mission a few months ahead of our commitment even.

MR. BUSH:  And if I could add, wanting to make sure I mention my predecessor Dr. Bruce Jette, who was instrumental in bringing Mike in and supporting Mike.  And Mike and he together worked with Congress very closely to get the resources needed to overcome other challenges we face.  So, a lot of people helped, including members of Congress who were critical in making sure we had the resources to get this done the right way. 

MR. ABAIE:  If I may add, this has been a complete team effort.  The entire Pentagon collectively, addressed some of the issues that we came up with, be it financial, be it technical challenges, be it regulatory challenges. 

And the permitting has probably been one of our biggest challenges of all.  Ensuring that we meet all the requirements, so the entire Pentagon facility actually stepped up to the Army leadership, as Mr. Bush articulated, including Mr. Bush and Dr. Jette and all the way through the comptroller in the department as well as others, have been significant support. 

The Under Secretary Ms. Lord and the Under Secretary Dr. LaPlante have all been very supportive of all the work and any technical challenges that we've had they have provided the resources and the - whatever support needed to get the job done.  So, this truly has been a team effort.

MS. FLYNN:  Do we have any other questions in the room? 

Q:  Thank you very much.  Can you talk a little bit about North Korea's chemical weapon capabilities?  They are spending a lot of resources on nuclear and missile capabilities.  But how much have they advanced their chemical weapon capability technology? Thank you.

MS. STEWART:  Thank you for the question.  This is Mallory Stewart from the State Department, for those on Zoom. 

Clarifying that although the DPRK's not a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention we do access that DPRK maintains a chemical weapons program.  The DPRK is a state party to the Biologic Weapons Convention, but we also access that DPRK has a biological weapons program in violation of that convention.

There's limited sort of additional clarification I can provide beyond what's in the compliance report.  But we do access that the DPRK maintains a chemical weapons program.  We're quite concerned about it.  We've seen some evidence of it publicly and internationally in — in previous assassinations, and I think it's useful to refer everyone to the Annual Compliance Report to get additional details.  Thank you.

MS. FLYNN: OK, and with that, we can conclude today's discussion.  I thank you all for coming, and thanks to our panelists for coming, as well.