CRG Automation Helps U.S. Military Meet International Chemical Weapons Destruction Deadline
Colorado facility safely destroys mustard agent-filled projectiles, mortar rounds
JUNE 22, 2023 — LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — The U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot today announced the safe destruction of a stockpile of obsolete chemical weapons stored there since the 1950s. Plant workers have destroyed more than 780,000 mustard agent-filled projectiles and mortar rounds since 2015 with CRG Automation providing assistance as the military neared its goal and confronted the most challenging of those munitions.
“This accomplishment shows the United States is leading by example and is committed to the highest standards of transparency and public safety,” said Dr. William LaPlante, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.
Staring down an aggressive destruction deadline of Sept. 30, 2023, military leaders in 2021 found themselves in a difficult position. The robotic system they had used to successfully wash mustard agent out of 105mm and 155mm projectiles presented increased worker risks and maintainability challenges on the far more complex 4.2-inch mortar rounds.
The military turned to the same multi-organizational team, including CRG Automation, that successfully created a safer, more efficient process to destroy VX and sarin rockets at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant near Richmond, Kentucky. Engineers from companies including Amentum, Bechtel and CRG Automation, among others, came together as one team with a focused mission: to develop a solution that reduced worker risk, lowered maintenance requirements and increased efficiency.
“The safety of the workforce, public, and environment has always been priority number one for this program and the Department,” said Deborah Rosenblum, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.
In approaching the project, CRG Automation President James DeSmet noted, “This was a series of complexities we had never dealt with before. We often talk here at CRG about how our engineers like the kind of problems that leave other teams scratching their heads or banging them against the wall. We knew this was an opportunity unlike any other, and, even staring down the aggressive deadline, we knew we could do it.”
The reunited team began their work in September 2021, with the requirement of adhering to a strict set of guidelines:
- The system would have to be able to function in a caustic area.
- Each of the mortar rounds included a welded, immovable baffle assembly that ran through the center of the agent cavity. Mustard agent had often caked onto the baffle assembly over time. The new system would need to be able to completely rinse the agent – thick or thin – in the interior as well as on the baffle assembly.
- The interior would only be accessible by a ¾-inch opening created by the removal of the mortar’s bursterwell assembly casing.
- The system would need to fit exactly on the existing Cavity Access Machine (CAM) pads utilizing existing utilities with nothing added.
- Proposed modifications would be strictly reviewed by state authorities, which could cause delays in the timeline.
“What was already a very difficult and challenging timeline had layers of complexity,” said Amentum Project Manager Ken Ankrom.
To hasten the project, the team quickly developed and assembled an X-ray device to examine which mortar shells would be most challenging given the mustard agent’s varying degrees of solidification. With the scope of the problem identified, the team designed a way to pull the bursterwell assembly from the mortar, and then began the process of developing a system that would both extract out the liquified mustard agent while also washing the solidified mustard off the immovable baffle, all the while making sure that none of it leaked.
Complicating the issue further was that some of the mortars had become pressurized over time. Removing the bursterwell would sometimes lead to a bit of frothiness, similar to opening a bottle of champagne.
DeSmet’s team set about designing a system that would first introduce a vacuum tube into the mortar that vacuumed liquified mustard agent, including what might immediately swell up from the removal of the bursterwell. As the vacuum reached a midway point in the mortar, a wash wand with 10 nozzles began a high-pressure wash using three gallons of water per minute. While this took place, the Improved Cavity Access Machine devices developed by the team rotated the mortar 180 degrees, back and forth, to ensure the mustard agent was fully washed out from the interior and baffle surfaces. The team also developed a containment manifold to fit around the top of each mortar to capture any agent coming out as the vacuum and wash wand tackled the inside.
The system was designed virtually using what’s called computational fluid dynamics (CFD), quickly proving that the concept would work. It was essential given the finished technology involved five subsystems and more than 2,000 parts.
“I saw first-hand the innovative thinking, exceptional teamwork and outstanding work ethic from our employees who overcame any issues that were encountered during chemical weapons destruction,” said Plant Manager Kim Jackson. “It is a testament to them that we are in a position to showcase to the world Colorado’s eradication of the munitions stockpile.”
Pueblo Plant Support Specialist Randy Johnson praised the team’s work, specifically complimenting the engineers at CRG Automation who assembled the ICAMs at the Louisville-based company’s modern machine shop for testing. “They’re a really good group of people – very, very responsive and very, very willing to listen and solve problems,” Johnson said.
Added Ankrom, “I believe it’s just instilled in CRG that they not only hear the customer, they take it a step further to really understand, and as a result of that, we stayed very synced up.”