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Idaho National Laboratory

From the INEEL Archives
Feature Story

Engineering Munitions Handling - A U.S. Army Munitions Assessment System

Contributed by Kathy Gatens
January 2002

Videos: Windows .asf (192 KB), QuickTime .mov (400 KB), RealPlayer .rm (289 KB)

Technician with the munitions assessment system.

All equipment and processes within the stainless steel modules were designed to accommodate the limitations of gloved and heavily garbed technicians.

Looking like astronauts on a Mars mission, three red-suited technicians enter the stainless steel chamber. Humpbacked with back-up oxygen tanks, the men connect to breathing air hoses. Then, with the precision of a surgical team, they begin to work in the compact confines of the chamber.

They raise the first drum with a mechanical lift, open the top, and gently slide out the one of several deadly recovered chemical weapons that they will handle today. These men, members of the U.S. Army Tech Escort Unit (TEU), are tasked to assess, unpack, and repackage recovered chemical munitions.

It was Bob McMorland’s job to make sure they could do this dangerous work safely. McMorland, of National Security’s Engineered Systems, is the project manager responsible for the design, engineering, prefabrication, assembly, and onsite acceptance testing of the Munitions Assessment System (MAS).

This one-of-a-kind, complex series of vapor confinement and support modules was created by the INEEL to assist the Army with assessment and eventual destruction of non-stockpile recovered chemical warfare materiel, some dating back to World War II.

Engineers in National Security have developed several mobile munitions assessment systems over the past years. TEU uses these truck and trailer or motorhome systems when responding to suspected chemical weapon materiel discoveries. Recently, these INEEL-developed systems were used to confirm that chemical munitions were included among numerous World War I relics that surfaced in suburban Washington D.C. But neither the Army nor the INEEL had ever designed a facility-based "production line" assessment system.

The Process

The MAS is designed to process drums containing multiple chemical munitions. A drum is delivered to the unpack/repackage room via an inlet airlock. Once inside, technicians open the drum and collect any packing material such as Vermiculite or sand, for disposal.


Technician with the munitions assessment system.

Each munition is extracted for examination and replaced into individual canisters.

TEU personnel will visually and physically examine each munition. They will seal leaks and decontaminate the casing if necessary and repack each into its own canister. Next, they place the munition into an outlet airlock where the canister is monitored for any external chemical agent contamination

The canister then proceeds to the next stages, X-ray and chemical assessment. The Munitions Assessment System includes several INEEL developed technologies. The digital radiography and computed tomography system will generate detailed X-rays and "CAT scans" of each munition and the portable isotopic neutron spectroscopy system, or PINS, will identify the chemical fill the munition may contain.

Finally, a data package is compiled on each munition before it is returned to a designated igloo to await destruction. For the safety of the soldier and protection of the environment, the Army must be certain of the contents and condition of each munition before it can be destroyed.

Technician with the munitions assessment system.

Technicians move the munition on a specially designed dolly to ensure safe movement.

The whole process, from start to finish, is monitored by TEU from a remote control room trailer. Within the unpack/pack room, and throughout the assessment process, video cameras scan the technicians as they gently cradle the munitions. Quiet comments and instructions flow back and forth through hands-free voice communications. It is in the control room that the final data assessment package is compiled for each munition.

System Requirements and Restrictions

McMorland faced some interesting requirements for the MAS - requirements not usually seen even within diverse National Security programs. For example, facility size was restricted by the width of highways and the height of overpasses. This system would be designed and prefabricated at the INEEL, then trucked to and assembled at its final destination. Hence, the series of modules.

Another interesting design restriction was that technicians working in the Munitions Assessment System would be fully encapsulated in personnel protection clothing, including three sets of gloves. All equipment and processes had to be designed to accommodate their bulky and limited movement. Knobs are big, tools are hung at eye level, and edges are smoothed.

The module is carefully loaded onto a trailer in preparation for its journey. The systems were designed to accommodate highway transportation restrictions. McMorland assembled a team of engineers whose variety and number reflected the complexity of the project. Electrical, mechanical, civil, structural, instrumentation and controls, software, HVAC, fire protection and quality assurance engineers all helped design the MAS.

"There are really two big pieces to this project," says McMorland. "The first part is the modules. We’ve moved munition-handling operations into an engineered controls environment. The second part, equally important, is all of the support systems."

Technician with the munitions assessment system.

The entire munitions assessment process is monitored from the sophisticated control room.

The team designed HVAC, electrical, breathing air, vacuum collection, and personnel decontamination systems to accommodate the heavily garbed technicians and the tasks they will accomplish. Nothing was simple. A dedicated air supply is provided for the four vapor confinement modules with a dedicated exhaust system, including HEPA and carbon filters. Temperature is maintained around 55 degrees, a little cold for office workers but appropriate for the space-suited workers.

Electrical lines and conduits snake across roofs of the modules and are located there for several reasons - they are out of the way of any decontamination process within the module and are easily accessible for repair or upgrades.

Air monitors continuously sample the atmosphere. Critical systems, such as breathing air and HVAC, are continuously monitored and alarmed in the control room. Fire suppression systems and a standby power generator stand ready for any emergency.

The Human Factor

It all works. One reason it does is because McMorland and his engineering team involved the operators right from the beginning. They interviewed them and listened to them. The design was built around their needs and wherever possible, included their wants.

Technician with the munitions assessment system.

The module is carefully loaded onto a trailer in preparation for its journey. The systems were designed to accommodate highway transportation restrictions.

"Space was a premium commodity," said McMorland. Restricted by those highways and byways "we had to build full-scale mock-ups. We had to fit in all of the necessary equipment yet still allow maneuverability." In all, INEEL and TEU conducted five walk-throughs, two in the mock-ups alone. In August, when the system was almost complete, the last walk-through took place to fine-tune the design. The only thing missing were real chemical munitions.

The INEEL team size averaged about 12 people, some coming and going, some staying on with the project the whole time. McMorland unequivocally states that it was the contributions of many people that resulted in this quality product. He points out a few: John Becker - vapor confinement module (VCM) fabrication; Paul Mottishaw - VCM welding; Carlos Lopez - munitions handling equipment design and fabrication; Brian Clark - instrumentation, controls, and control room design and fabrication; Fran Hurley - drafting/design drawing coordination; Mona Huffaker - project quality assurance engineer; and Greg Anderson - procurement.

Just because its finished here in Idaho, does not mean the project is done. In January, all of the equipment still at the INEEL will be shipped out. McMorland has staged lots of equipment already. INEEL engineers will start reassembling the modules, which will take about three months. Over the next 18 months, the Army will complete construction, finalize operating procedures, complete safety reviews, and prepare the system for "hot operation". INEEL will manage the onsite acceptance-testing program.

And even that might not be the end. McMorland’s team designed the system for flexibility, bolting equipment in place rather than welding it. He recognizes the cost savings potential in using the MAS for other missions. "It will be easy to reconfigure the system to support other chemical warfare materiel projects in the future."

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