Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Atomic Indiana

While Indiana hasn't a single nuclear power reactor, we do have a little atomic history: tiny Dana, Indiana was once the site of the first high-volume heavy water plant in the United States using hydrogen sulfide in a setup that looks like a refinery-gone-mad (see first link); it ran from 1951 through 1957. (More info in this PDF)

The site had previously been been used during the Manhattan Project (don't ask me how they were gettin' the Deuterium Oxide untangled from plain Wabash River water back then, nobody's telling; probably vacuum distillation) and DuPont had been brewing up RDX there since 1942 -- when it was America's first industrial RDX production facility.

But wait, there's more! In 1959, the Army took a look at the heavy water facility and decided it would be just about perfect to remodel into a nerve gas facility. Starting in 1959, they set to and were making VX gas there (more-or-less upwind of Indianapolis) from 1961 through 1968. Every bit of VX the U.S. ever had was made right here in Indiana.

--And still the story wasn't over: five TNT production lines were built in 1968, ran through 1975, and as of 1984, were still maintained in "standby" condition. (Nice history with some illustrations.)

Still with me? That's RDX to D2O to VX to TNT, with the name changing from Wabash River Ordnance Works to Newport Army Ammunition Plant and finally Newport Chemical Depot; and then in 1997, nearly every country on the planet -- certainly all the kewl kids -- got together and decided landmines were oooo-tay but this chemical-weapons stuff* was Right Out. There was still a nice pile of tanks of OMG, er, VX at Newport; they were going to burn it (this actually works, as long as the fire's hot enough), but remember that "upwind from Indy" thing? Yeah, lousy PR if your incinerator hiccups, so they used a chemical method and had it all neutralized by 2008. (Speaking of hiccups, in '05, somebody slopped out 30 gallons of the stuff -- and managed to not kill or even hurt anyone. Three cheers for multilevel precautions!)

In 2010, the music stopped. Newport was closed. There's supposed to be a re-use plan but I'm not finding much. ("Picnic in the shade of the nitric acid tanks! Stroll by the old ammonia oxidizer! Marvel at The Bookends in the area planned for the never-built smokeless powder plant!" ...I dunno)
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* Except, I guess, for white phosphorous, 'cos the chemical action's just a side-effect. Small compensation if a flare comes to call, so try to be elsewhere, please.

14 comments:

Borepatch said...

I'm afraid that I'm enough of a nerd that when I hear the term "heavy water" all I can think of is the old Hogan's Heroes episode where they get Sgt. Schultz to drink the heavy water.

LCB said...

I thought all of the VX was dumped in the ocean during the Nixon admin. I remember it being a big deal that it was transported by train from ??? to the Atlantic seaboard somewhere. I got to see one of the trains go through East Bernstead, KY when I was 12 or so.

Of course...what they said they were doing and what they actually did may not have exactly been the same.

NAVIGATOR said...

ROBERTA

Nice report on the ordnance works did they publish an environmental impact statement? probably site has extensive contamination by HAZMATs

i would hope that at the very least a
historic site marker be put up describing the plants contribution to the "Arsenal of Democracy" where the public might see it

after they demolish the ruins they
might reforest the entire area

Anonymous said...

VX is like motor oil which can be good or bad. It stays where you put it which makes it easier to clean up spills and it's really good chemical for keeping people buttoned up in their ship or tank or off an airfield because it doesn't break down quickly in sun light like Sarin (GB).

Severel other Depots have a large amount of VX stored on them.I think Nixon dumped mustard gas (HD) in the Atlantic but that stopped pretty quickly. There are still tons, yes really tons of that around as well.

I can't tell you how many questions I got asked after people saw the movie, The Rock. I told every one that it was 100% factual. They store this deadly chemical in fragile glass balls and it makes your head explode if you even stare at it too long.

Gerry

NAVIGATOR said...

FOR LCB

in the 1950s and 1960 the government
loaded quite a few Liberty Ship hulls
with obsolete explosive and chemical ordnance which included mustard and phosgene took them out past the Continental Shelf and sank the vessels
they were fused with modified depth charges set very very deep the sympathetic detonation is supposed to
destroy (incinerate) the cargo under
pressure so that nothing remained

nerve agents were incinerated out at Johnston Island

Anonymous said...

Gerry: Yes, it's a misnomer to call it VX "gas;" as I recall, it has to be aerosolized.

I'm not sure what the hazmat situation might be; some of the processes called for some pretty nasty chemicals. Google Maps shows at least one building standing and cars in the lot.

Anonymous said...

Dana, Indiana=home of Ernie Pyle.

http://www.indianamuseum.org/sites/erni.html

Shootin' Buddy

Anonymous said...

Dana, Indiana=home of Ernie Pyle.

http://www.indianamuseum.org/sites/erni.html

Shootin' Buddy

Data Viking said...

There is a working nuclear reactor at Purdue University, West Lafayette campus halfway between the Electrical Engineering Building and the Physics Building deep underground.

mikelaforge said...

Ms. X - Wiki has some info on Operation CHASE (Cut Holes and Sink 'Em), a United States Department of Defense program that involved the disposal of unwanted munitions at sea. I knew some of the Newport CD folks. They basically moved along to Umatilla CD to run their demil program or retired.

Robin said...

Actually some of the Kool Kids tried to create a treaty to ban landmines. But since the US is helping defend an extremely fortified border or two to this day, like in the Korean peninsula, landmines are pretty much a requirement and we didn't sign on.

Anonymous said...

WP is not used in flares ( Various nitrates with aluminium or magnesium), WP is used to mark targets, for registering Artillery fire, or to create smoke screens (phosphorus pentoxide).

Roberta X said...

Data Viking (Hey, HI!) -- but is it a power reactor or a research reactor?

At one point, "swimming pool" reactors (with enough water that they had long walkaway times) were fairly common at any college with a serious science/engineering program.

Anon: thanks for the info! However it is used, WP is bad stuff for humans to be exposed to -- of course, so is incoming fire.

LCB said...

Navagator...thanks. Being 12 or so back then...it's no wonder I didn't remember the details correctly. ;-)