Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Outlook Not So Good

Bear with me, I beg of you, for this week's final post on chemical weapons. Rest assured that it hurts me more than it does you.

State governments are becoming interested in the chemical weapons that the military dumped off America's coasts.

Officials in Hawai'i and Washington, D.C., are demanding information from the Department of Defense on more than 8,000 tons of chemical weapons that were dumped off O'ahu at the end of World War II and may still be there.

The weapons and bulk chemical containers include the lethal toxins hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride and the blistering agents mustard and lewisite....An Army spokesman last week said there is no danger of the toxic chemicals washing up on O'ahu beaches, but he was unable to say how the Army came to that conclusion.
Most likely, the Army won't explain how it reached this conclusion because it's classified information. Perhaps it's only a coincidence, but my sources inform me that after decades of top-secret research into the strange properties of icosahedral flotation devices, DARPA recently perfected a new-generation threat assessment calculator. Make of it what you will.

Senator John Warner (R-VA) has joined other members of Congress in filing a formal request for information on offshore dumping of chemical weapons. The DoD's provisional response is here.

Meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has staggered forth from the reeking primordial ooze of Black Pond, his ghastly rictus lit by the eerie glow of the ignis fatuus, or corpse candle, and asked Congress to investigate whether 1,825 corroding cylinders made of depleted uranium and filled with phosgene might pose a threat to worker health at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. ("Signs point to yes!")

Over at the Rocky Flats nuclear site in Colorado, a great many workers are already sick or dead. Fortunately, help is on the way:
Recognizing that many of the workers have terminal illnesses, the Labor Department has increased its staff in its regional offices in hopes of expediting the claims process....
That's downright neighborly of them. The linked article says that there were 35,000 such claims from Rocky Flats alone. A dirty bomb that affected that many people would thrill any terrorist.

What all this amounts to, in the end, is a slow-motion attack on the United States with WMD. We've sickened and killed our citizens, damaged our economy, poisoned our food and water, destroyed or contaminated natural resources that had both financial and spiritual value, and saddled future generations with a host of burdensome problems. This war of attrition isn't as glamorous or exciting as a single, high-casualty terrorist attack, of course. Still, I suspect America's foreign enemies will find it very difficult to do as much cumulative damage to this country as its self-styled defenders have done, and are doing.

UPDATE: Thanks to a tip from Ahianne, who has apparently whiled away many happy hours at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, I went forth and researched the phosgene/depleted uranium story a bit more. The term "depleted uranium cylinders" was used in the linked article, but as Ahianne noted, it's misleading. These are actually steel cylinders that formerly held phosgene, and now hold uranium hexafluoride. This article writes the lead sentence properly:
Cylinders storing depleted uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant may be corroding because of toxic gas mistakenly left in them....
And there you have it. However many of our dreams may have gone unfulfilled today, at least a few of us will be able to say that we learned something new about gaseous diffusion plants.


Anonymous said...

Ummm - I rather doubt that "depleted uranium cylinders" means cylinders made of depleted uranium. I rather suspect that they are steel cylinders containing uranium hexaflouride from the tails end of the refining train. I say this as a former employee of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which had plenty of tails cylinders in cylinder yards.


Phila said...


Hmmm. I'm thinking you're right. On the one hand, the first paragraph of the story says: "Congress has been asked to order an independent study of whether a toxic gas left in depleted uranium cylinders poses a danger at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant." And it also says that the phosgene was put in them by mistake.

However, the article goes on to say that if these cylinders leaked, there'd be a release of hydrogen fluoride, which only makes sense under your scenario. So then, I guess we have to assume that these are steel cylinders filled with uranium salts, into which phosgene was accidentally placed.

I know nothing at all about gaseous diffusion plants...but still, I can't imagine what they'd use phosgene for. Surely we don't use it for processing uranium anymore, do we?

Anonymous said...

Offhand, I don't recall any use of phosgene. We worried about HF and fluorine (which I can spell if I think about it). At one point there was a fluorine tank on site which could have taken out Pike County if it ruptured.

Oh, yes... corroding cylinders. Rust. Just keeping the damn things painted would mitigate the hazard.


Anonymous said...

In the early 1950s the original cylinders used to contain uranium hexaflouride(UF6) were the same as those used by the military to hold chemical weapons gases. A few, no where near the number quoted, were suspected of being filled without first purging the original content. Don't know that all cylinders have been tested, but the ones that have been sampled for phosgene so far have shown no indications. Once the plants got into production (still in the fifties) they fabricated thier own unique cylinders. There is no phosgene used in the process.