2003 CPEO Military List Archive

From: CPEO Moderator <cpeo@cpeo.org>
Date: 25 Jul 2003 15:47:16 -0000
Reply: cpeo-military
Subject: [CPEO-MEF] The NRC: Responsible Review or Rubber Stamp?
The National Research Council: Responsible Review or Rubber Stamp?
Chemical Weapons Working Group, June 2003

Background on the NRC “Stockpile” Committee

In 1985, Public Law 99-145 required the U.S. Department of Defense to
“carry out the destruction of the United States stockpile of lethal
chemical agents and munitions that exists...”  The preceding year, 1984,
the Army made visits to communities where these chemical weapons are
stored,  to inform citizens of the Army’s plan to incinerate the
weapons. As part of their presentation, the Army emphasized the fact
that “the prestigious National Research Council” (NRC) had endorsed the
incineration technology and that it was the only destruction option

No communities were aware of how that endorsement was secured, but
insight can be garnered by the following passage in the 1984 report,
“The Army has already selected thermal destruction as the most
appropriate method.  The committee supports this decision.” (emphasis

Since then the NRC Committee on the Destruction of Chemical Agents and
Munitions has reiterated it’s endorsement regardless of the evidence
showing their conclusion was in error.

Case Study:  Rubber Stamp for Incineration

Since the NRC’s 1984 endorsement of incineration, the Army’s chemical
weapons incinerators have released chemical agents directly into the
environment on 18 occasions...at least.  There also exists
circumstantial evidence of dozens more, but these have yet to be
admitted  by the Army or proven by the citizens groups.

One incident took place on March 30, 1998 when more than 10 times the
acceptable amount of GB nerve agent was fed into an incinerator
furnace.  The overfeed situation caused significant malfunction at the
facility.   Alarms located in the duct leading to the smokestack rang
off at the highest possible levels of chemical agent detection: 511
times the allowable levels thought to be safe. The actual amount of
agent triggering these alarms remains unknown.  Alarms further
downstream in the system were swamped and malfunctioned due to the high
volume of this same material overwhelming them.  To this day the Army
claims the material which triggered one set of alarms and rendered the
second set inoperable was not chemical agent, but they state they cannot
identify what it was.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG), convinced that this incident
was a major release of chemical warfare agent directly into the
environment.  We gathered over 1,000 pages of official documents related
to the incident, interviewed witnesses to the event and provided all
this information to the NRC Committee for review.

Almost two years passed. Repeated inquiries to the NRC were met with no
response.  Citizens brought the documents to a local Alabama newspaper,
who hired three independent combustion experts to review the incident.
One of the experts stated,  “I believe the Army is not telling the whole
truth and that the sensors failed in the smokestack.  It is simple isn't
it? The furnace shut down and the nerve agent was not burned. Where did
it go? It went up and out.”  Still the NRC refused to investigate the
incident. So, the citizens went to Congress, which tasked the NRC
Committee to review all incidences that were considered chemical agent
“events” at the Army incinerators.  The 1,000 pages of data on the March
30 incident were again supplied to the Committee, supplemented with
additional information.

In December 2001, the NRC issued a report on chemical agent incidences
that concluded incineration was a safe technology, when compared to the
risks of continued storage of chemical weapons.  Even more remarkable,
the report completely ignored the March 30, 1998 incident, which
instigated the report in the first place!   The Chairman of the
Committee, Dr. Charles Kolb wrote, “We looked at the March 30, 1998
incident and did not feel that it was particularly outstanding and thus
did not select it for in-depth analysis.”

So, while some good recommendations have come out of the Committee (on
chemical agent monitoring, for example), it is largely seen as a rubber
stamp for the Army’s incinerators, no matter how bad the technology’s

Independent Analysis done right

Anyone familiar with the process of the NRC or other non-governmental
review agencies knows that the conclusions by these agencies are largely
determined by the specific statement of task, and set of assumptions
they carry from the beginning of the review process.  At best, then, the
conclusions provide mere snapshots of extremely complex and
ever-changing issues, with huge environmental and public health

Yet there can be benefit to an “independent” analysis, and we have had
some positive experiences with other NRC Committees, in particular the
Committee on the Assembled Chemical Weapons Assessment (ACWA), and the
Committee on the Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel Program (NSCMP).  When
we say “positive experience,” that doesn’t mean we agreed with all of
the Committee’s assumptions, nor did we necessarily agree with all of
its conclusions.  We may have thought that the statement of task, handed
down by the Army or Congress, was too limited in scope.  However there
are some clear differences in the manner the Committee’s appeared to
operate, and the context in which their assignments were handed down and
carried out.

• Both the ACWA program and the NSCMP have ongoing formal dialogue with
citizens, state and federal regulators, and other decision-makers.
Regular dialogue meetings -- sometimes 3 or 4 times per year -- provided
opportunities for respective NRC Committee members to observe
communication between citizens and the Army, and track the important
issues being raised and dealt with.  NRC Committee members themselves
interacted directly with citizens and representatives from local
organizations.  Thus Committee members were exposed to a broad set of
ideas, not just a stack of documents.
• Both ACWA and NSCMP recognize that public acceptability is an
important factor in technology deployment, and they respect the public’s
right to be fully informed on technology options, and involved at some
level of the decision-making process.
• The NRC Committee on NSCMP has invited citizens to speak to them on a
number of occasions, and arranged for conference calls between Committee
members and citizens to get a better understanding of their concerns and
ideas.  Those viewpoints were then documented -- accurately! -- in the
• The Committees were clearly aware of what decisions were being made,
and courses of action were being considered, by agencies other than
those included in their statement of task.  That is, their review did
not take place in a scientific or policy vacuum.

Elements of Responsible Review

With a review system so fraught with bias and faulty assumptions, its
hard to know where to begin talking about how to fix it.  But perhaps we
can start by recognizing some of the elements for responsible,
independent review.

*  Recognition of the Precautionary Principle.  This principle states
(paraphrased), that where there are gaps in our scientific knowledge,
and where cause and effect relationships are not proven, we must act in
a manner of precaution.  This approach is good common sense...yet
unfortunately it is not the premise on which most scientific reviews --
nor the policies so influenced by these reviews -- take place.

*  Affirmation of Environmental Justice.  Environmental justice
acknowledges the right of all peoples to a clean, healthy environment
regardless of ethnicity or income.  Affirming the principles of
Environmental Justice forces us to look for the most protective and most
equitable solution to the problem.

*  Support for the right of citizens to accept or reject a proposed
action.   Public acceptability is, ultimately, the factor which may make
or break the military’s proposed actions.  Rather than seeing this as a
threat to overcome, Committees could give public acceptability factors
equal weight as “technical” factors, and help government agencies
identify the best and most acceptable approach.

*  Inclusion of citizens -- as experts! -- in the process, throughout
the process.  Making room at the table for all kinds of experts -- those
with degrees in chemistry, sociology, etc. as well as citizens who know
their communities best --   will make the review process more credible,
build trust among citizens and the scientific community, and help pave
the way for real solutions to the problem of military contamination.

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