Using a remotely controlled, one-armed robot known as a linear projectile mortar disassembly machine (LPMD), employees contracted through Westinghouse can now separate mustard agent-filled mortars from their inner explosives, or bursters.
The $25 million project, paid for by the Army, is three years in the making. Data collected throughout the process will aid in planning the Pueblo, Colo., chemical agent disposal facility currently under construction, said project manager Steve Bragg. Operations for the project in Anniston began at the end of March.
“It makes a lot of sense to take a facility and come in and test (the process beforehand),” Bragg said. “For three years we’ve been designing, testing and installing this system.”
The LPMD essentially allows for a back-up plan, should the deactivation furnace at the incinerator facility need maintenance. Currently, mortars pass through three different furnaces, and the removal of explosives prior to incineration allows mortars to go directly into the metal parts furnace, according to Terry Sholin, public affairs officer for Westinghouse Anniston’s operations at the facility.
The explosives removed from the mustard-filled mortars in Anniston will be destroyed on-site at the depot in the future, while the munitions from which they are removed will go back into storage igloos until their incineration. The LPMD does not involve removing the mustard agent from the mortars.
Mike Abrams, the Army’s spokesman for the Anniston incineration project, said that when the last chemical-filled weapons are being destroyed in a couple years, not needing one of the three furnaces will mean workers can start taking it apart sooner.
“This will assist in preparing the plant for closure more quickly,” he said.
The disassembly robot is similar to those found in other industrial sites, but has been tweaked for chemical weapons disposal. Bragg said the Honda plant in Lincoln has 15 to 20 similar pieces of equipment.
Over the expected 15-month operating schedule for this project, Bragg said, as many as 60,000 munitions could be processed. In the first two weeks of operation, results have shown the machine can process about 50 mortars an hour, he said.
While the project provides a back-up plan, the main objective of the project is to collect data for the Pueblo, Colo., site.
The chemical agent disposal site there will house three of the robotic systems, but will use alternatives other than incineration for disposal. The LPMD project in Anniston is designed to be similar to operations there, and is expected to improve the Pueblo site’s operations. Pueblo’s stockpile of mustard-filled munitions is similar to Anniston’s.
“We’re doing daily critiques and documenting every problem in the facility,” he said. “We have, in the initial testing phase, found design changes needed.”
The incinerator in Anniston fired up in 2003. Officials in 2008 completed destruction of two types of nerve agent stored here. All that remains now is mustard. Army officials are working to meet a 2012 deadline set by an international treaty to dispose of Cold War-era chemical weapons stockpiles.
As of Tuesday, the Anniston site had destroyed 71.7 percent of munitions scheduled for incineration.
Contact staff writer Rebecca Walker at 256-235-3562.