Sandia LabNews

Success story for Sandia: Munitions-destroying Explosive Destruction System shown to employees

Success story for Sandia: Munitions-destroying Explosive Destruction System shown to employees

“A success story for Sandia” is how John Didlake (8228) characterized the Explosive Destruction System (EDS), of which he is the project manager, during an overview for employees last month when the fifth and final EDS left Sandia/California.

The EDS is a customized flatbed trailer with a vessel that resembles a large, front-loading washing machine in which explosively configured chemical munitions can be destroyed in a contained manner. The Army approached Sandia 10 years ago seeking an alternative to open burn/open detonation of aging, unstable munitions recovered on former Department of Defense property that has been turned over to public use or borders public developments.

238 operations, tests already

“Processing three to six munitions in a year was the original envisioned usage of the system,” John said. In the last six years, however, there have been 238 Army operations and tests in which 106 actual recovered munitions were destroyed — including one on the very morning of his talk (in a previously delivered system at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland). The other operations included 56 destructions of cylinders bearing chemical agent and 76 of simulated agent. (Simulated agent tests are used for procedures verification and crew training.)

Just the week before his talk, Sandia issued a report documenting the system’s efficacy against surrogates of anthrax, Bacillus thuringiensis and Bacillus stearothermophilus. The Sandia team undertook a $60,000 Laboratory-Directed Research and Development project to demonstrate its effectiveness against bacterial spores, which could provide a means to neutralize an improvised terrorist device.

“There’s high value in extending the EDS’ successful track record into other areas,” said Technology Application Dept. 8228 Manager Mary Clare Stoddard. “Should the need arise, a solution stands ready” for destroying weapons bearing biological agents, of which anthrax is among the most resistant to disinfection.

Sandia’s novel concept

Operated by Army ordnance disposal experts, the system, she said, marries previously existing technologies in a novel way. Sandia’s concept was to first detonate a device’s explosives, then neutralize the agent it contains, all within a sealed stainless steel vessel.

Explosive charges are applied on the outside of the device to explode the munition’s burster and cleave open the shell, exposing the agent inside. The charges are set off inside a fragment-suppressing pipe loaded into the vessel.

Then chemical reagents are pumped into the sealed vessel, which is agitated and heated to accelerate neutralization. The effluent is collected for environmentally sound disposal.

The latest EDS unit was just transported from Livermore to Albuquerque for more explosives testing. It is one of two larger units, with a vessel volume of 160 gallons, able to handle 4.8 lbs. of TNT equivalent. The entire trailer weighs 55,000 lbs. and was custom-made for the US Army Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel program.

It is deployed along with a diesel power generator and a utility trailer containing spare parts, consumables, and tools. John said EDS is unique in being the first and so far, only, system certified to destroy these type weapons in the US. It has been approved by both the military and regulators in the five states where it has been used (Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland and Utah). An Army study identified more than 100 sites around the country where aging munitions might be uncovered.

If necessary, the $3.5 to $5 million systems can be air-shipped to respond to unearthing of a vintage munition of uncertain pedigree. When a munition is recovered from a former testing site or other civilian location, it is nondestructively imaged to determine its fuzing and contents. The system processing is then operated in keeping with those observations, and the results are checked by testing vessel contents before they are drained and the vessel door opened.

The EDS was designed to be transported because, by Department of Transportation regulations, an explosively configured recovered munition cannot be moved. Three smaller systems, an initial prototype that was put into operation and two “production” models, have a vessel rating of just over 1 lb. TNT equivalent and are compact enough to ship in an Army C-141 aircraft (the larger systems would require an Air Force C-5A). These smaller systems are capable of handling 90 percent of the munitions the Army expects to find.

‘Things started working quickly’

Early on, EDS was dispatched to Porton Down in England for testing on WWI-era recovered shells and projectiles. From December 1999 to November 2000 the first system destroyed 12 munitions there containing phosgene and 14 containing mustard.

One additional test was conducted at Porton Down just before the system came back to the US and demonstrated EDS could destroy a container with 1.3 lbs. of sarin. Meanwhile, six sarin-filled bomblets, the size of a grapefruit, were found at Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver, currently a Superfund cleanup site.

Although EDS was ranked fifth of the alternatives considered for ridding the arsenal of the bomblets, it was picked on Dec. 1, 2000, at the urging of the Colorado governor and the six were destroyed starting on Superbowl Sunday in 2001. “Things moved very quickly because a four-star general wanted it to happen,” John said.

Four more bomblets were destroyed there just after the Fourth of July in 2001, and in 2002, EDS was put into action over Labor Day, disposing of an armed and fuzed phosgene-containing mortar found in a farmer’s field (formerly Camp Sibert land) near Gadsden, Ala. “We don’t get holidays on this program,” John quipped.

In fact, the morning of the talk he’d been roused at 5 a.m. with a technical question from Aberdeen, where the second Lewisite munition to be destroyed in this country was being neutralized, a three-day-long operation due to the complex chemistry of the Lewisite agent inside.

“We keep expanding the capabilities and we keep expanding the agents,” he said later that day, touring both employees and reporters through the EDS, parked outside the Combustion Research Facility.

For instance, the National Research Council conducted a study that concluded that using three EDS units would have the highest probability of meeting schedule and be the most cost-effective way to dispose of 1,200 munitions at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas destined for demilitarization under the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty initially called for completion of demilitarization of chemical weapon stockpiles in 2007 (now extended to 2012). The Pine Bluff EDS operation is expected to begin later this year.

The initial need was sparked when construction of luxury homes in the Spring Valley development in Washington, D.C., near American University in 1992 unearthed four explosively configured mortars containing chemical agent, prompting evacuation of the neighborhood. The standard method of destroying these munitions is called “open burn, open detonation (OB/OD). It involves packing five times the amount of the explosive as the amount of agent around the munition and setting the explosive off to breech the shell and consume the agent in the ensuing fireball. Interestingly, Sandia/New Mexico did the calculations that derived the five times explosive factor for the Army. The noise and complications of blowing out windows and damaging houses from setting off 10 to 15 pounds of explosive made OB/OD unsuitable for Washington, D.C., John said. This caused the Army to seek some other technology. Ultimately many more munitions were unearthed and transported with special waivers out of the area. However, nearly a decade later, in 2003, EDS set up operations 100 yards behind Sibley Hospital in Spring Valley and neutralized 15 munitions containing mustard — six of them explosively configured.

Next explosives tests in Albuquerque

From July to September of 2004, 22 items were destroyed at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah that had been in storage since 1980. In October 2004 EDS destroyed a 75 mm mortar containing mustard found at a chicken ranch in Bridgeville, Del. Although EDS has never had a deployment in California there have been two close calls. A 4.2-inch mortar containing phosgene was found in 2003 near a housing development in Vista, north of Escondido, and later that year a 10-pound sarin bomblet was found at Edwards Air Force Base. The phosgene round was not explosively configured and could be transported to a destruction site and the bomblet was a trainer.

Explosives tests in Albuquerque will focus on preparations for the Pine Bluff arsenal operations. There are more than 700 recovered 4.2-inch mortars and over 400 German traktor rockets stored at Pine Bluff. The tests will demonstrate the capability to do six mortars or six traktor rockets at one time in the larger EDS.