Most, But Not All, Deadly VX Nerve Agent Destroyed

By Pete Winn | January 2, 2009 | 5:56 PM EST

This photo shows the chemical weapons incinerator at the Annniston Army Depot at Anniston, Ala., on Thursday, May 29, 2008. The incinerator, located about 50 miles east of Birmingham, has destroyed about half of the chemical stockpile stored at the depot since the Cold War. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

 
(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Army says a five-year program has successfully destroyed much of the nation’s deadly VX nerve agent – a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) that is slated for total elimination by international agreement. 

But an expert on chemical and biological weapons says the U.S. still has a large stockpile of the lethal weapon left.
 
The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency reported Monday that it destroyed the last landmine containing VX at its destruction sites in Anniston, Ala., on Dec. 24.
 
In fact, in the last five years, all VX munitions have been destroyed at five other disposal sites -- Umatilla, Ore.; Newport, Ind.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Tooele, Utah; and Johnston Island -- approximately 800 miles southwest of Hawaii.  
 
"We have reached a truly remarkable milestone following more than five years of deliberate, but careful operations,” said Timothy K. Garrett, project manager at the Anniston destruction site. “All nerve agent munitions . . .  have been safely processed,” 

But Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow specializing in chemical and biological weapons issues at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the U.S. still has plenty of the toxic agent left.“The Army is playing games,” Tucker said. “There is still a stockpile of VX that remains to be destroyed.”
 
Most of the U.S.-produced VX was stored at Newport, Ind. – where it was manufactured, and that has pretty well been neutralized, Tucker said.  VX that was shipped to Anniston, Umatilla and other sites for destruction has indeed been eliminated.
 
But the U.S. still has a stockpile of VX at the Blue Grass Chemical Activity (BGCA) near Richmond, Ky.
 
“Blue Grass has not even begun construction of its destruction facility,” Tucker said.
 
VX was developed for weapons use during the Cold War.

“It was designed to be dispersed in fairly large droplets, so it would work primarily by penetrating the skin,” Tucker said. “It was persistent, so it could also be applied to terrain or vegetation and remain lethal for several days.”

VX attacks the nervous system, causing convulsions, paralysis and death in short order. But it is a misnomer to call it “nerve gas.”

“It’s actually a very viscous liquid, about the consistency of motor oil, and it was discovered in the early ‘50s by accident, by a British chemist, who was at Imperial Chemical Industries, who was attempting to discover a whole new class of pesticides,” Tucker told CNSNews.com.
   
Tucker said Russia has stockpiles of R-33, a slightly more lethal variant of the agent that they developed – meaning that smaller amounts can kill more people than VX.
 
“There is less concern about the U.S. stockpile, which is well-secured in concrete bunkers,” Tucker said, “ but there is somewhat more concern about the Russian stockpile, because security has improved, but there is still room for improvement at some of the sites.”
 
Syria, meanwhile, is suspected of having stockpiles of VX, as well.
 
“It’s unlikely that they would actually provide nerve agents to terrorists like al-Qai’da,” Tucker, a former U.N. weapons inspector and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency official, said. “But we don’t know where the weapons are even stored.”
 
The U.S. has never used VX, but Tucker said it is likely that Saddam Hussein did utilize it in aerial bombardment of the Kurds.
 
“It is believed to have been used by Iraq against the Kurds in 1988 in Northern Iraq, though there is no hard evidence of that,” Tucker said. “There were about 5,000 casualties. People died so quickly, that it is clear that a nerve agent was used – but it is believed that it was combination of VX and Sarin, which is a volatile nerve agent.”
 
In 1993, the U.S. signed a treaty calling for the elimination of all biological and chemical weapons by 2007 -- which has been extended to 2012.
 
“The U.S. has already admitted that it won’t be able to meet that deadline,” Tucker said, “and it’s unclear what will happen next.”
 
The Newport Army Ammunitions Plant produced more than 4,000 tons of VX.