ANNISTON, ALA. - On the road to incineration, the M55 rocket is never seen, encased until its destruction in a 6 1/2 foot long fiberglass gray tube weighing 60 pounds, marked on each end by a yellow and green stripe and in the middle with stenciled lettering noting it's filled with liquid sarin - also known as GB, a deadly chemical nerve agent produced during World War II.
But on the computer screen in the control room of the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility (ANCDF), the rocket is a long, skinny, light blue rectangle.
The rocket is moved from a wooden pallet to an automatic conveyor belt slowly and deliberately by two workers clad head-to-toe in white protective balloon-like suits - looking, moving and talking like astronauts inside their specially built concrete room.
But in the control room, moving the rocket through the facility requires about a half dozen control operators at one time, each stationed at a different computer console, each monitoring and executing a particular step of the process.
"I was nervous. I had never burned a real GB rocket," said Jason Ashley, one of the operators who rotate through the control room, talking about the day the ANCDF started incinerating its stockpile of chemical weapons a year ago this month. "There was a question of 'what would the furnace actually do?' I felt very safe, but if the furnace got to swinging, I was at the helm. But it ran smooth. It did exactly what it was supposed to do."
Like the Umatilla Chemical Depot, the Anniston Army Depot stores part of the nation's supply of sarin, VX and mustard gas. The liquid chemical agents are contained within a variety of bombs, land mines and bulk containers produced in the 1940s as a deterrent. They arrived on both the Anniston and Umatilla depots in the 1960s, and at six other sites in the continental U.S. They've been deteriorating ever since.
The United States has never used any of the chemical weapons it produced. In the 1980s Congress and the international community mandated their destruction by 2007. It is unlikely the United States will meet that deadline, but the Umatilla depot is expected to start incinerating its stockpile this week in order to comply with the order. It will be the third weapons incinerator to go on line in the United States. It is modeled after its most recent predecessor, the Anniston facility.
The start of burning at the Umatilla depot will likely be anti-climatic, according to Anniston employees.
"The anticipation level was high," Ashley said. "We kept getting a hot date and then they'd push it back. It was like telling a kid that Christmas was coming and then taking it away."
When the day came, "it was pretty exciting," said Ted Gerth, another control room operator on the shift of the first burn. "There were an awful lot of people watching us. Everyone was a little bit nervous."
The control room operators were a bit on edge, said Tim Garrett, the Army's site manager at the ANCDF, "but once they saw it, it was just like a fake round. Everybody expected a big grandiose event. But this was the smoothest startup a plant has had in the chemical demilitarization program."
That first day, only one round of rockets was processed.
"There was a lot of anxiety that first day," said Ken Ankrom, plant manager. Stopping after processing the first round allowed the crews to take a big sigh of relief - which went a long way in keeping the process safe, he said.
"It's hard not to jump in the car and run it fast, but we ran very few rockets each day."
Now, after a year of practice, and the destruction of more than 34,000 rockets, the operators are confident in their operations. They hang out in the control room in jeans and polo shirts, focused on their task when they need to be, but able to lean back and joke with each other during downtime. The atmosphere is relaxed, all things considered.
On one particular day in late July, the operators were focused on processing "leakers," rockets found to be emitting trace amounts of sarin vapor and considered potentially more unstable than those rockets still completely intact.
When the first pallet of 15 rockets arrived to the Toxic Maintenance Area, one rocket was found to be leaking liquid agent, a rarity. All operations were halted for several hours while workers consulted with each other on how best to deal with it, Garrett said. Eventually a specialist was called in to do maintenance on the rocket, capping the leak.
Such maintenance trips into a contaminated area are worth bragging rights for the employees. In their lunch room, a wooden plaque hangs under the title "ANCDF DPE Entry Honor Roll." Underneath it are golden hooks with lists of names under separate categories, "10+ entries," and "25+ entries." No one so far in Anniston has reached 50 entries, the next level of achievement.
But don't doubt their persistence.
"I haven't made as many as I'd like to. I got promoted too fast," said Brett Peterson, the lead operator on the shift dealing with the troublesome leaker. In between monitoring the employees' exit from the contaminated room, he talked about his time at another facility, on Johnston Atoll, an island in the South Pacific. There he made about 15 entries to do repairs and to monitor employees who needed access to the room.
"It was just kind of energizing. You knew you had a job to do," he said. "For me, it was a sense of enjoyment. I always looked forward to going in when I could."
Now, as the guy in charge of the scheduling, he works hard to rotate entries for the crew, distributing them as equally as possible. There are typically at least two or three a day for routine work, and additional opportunities arise in instances like the leaker that needed repairs. Some workers, of course, are hesitant, he said. But for most, "they say bring it on."
Back up in the control room, after the operations resumed normally, the first rocket of the day was processed.
The light blue rectangle - looking like a pawn in a video game - creeped its way through the incineration process on nearly all the screens, gliding across little circles lined in a row representing a conveyor belt. Eventually it was clamped by robotic equipment and hole-punched, similar in feel to that of a nail driven into an aluminum soda can. Three holes were made. One at the top of the rocket, to let vapor built up inside escape and two in the bottom to drain the liquid chemical agent. The rocket contained about a gallon of GB nerve agent, and all but a tiny percentage of it was emptied.
The glowing blue rectangle then glided through a guillotine that chopped it seven times into eight pieces. On screen, the blade moved up and down, doing little damage to the rectangle. In reality, the first cut removed the first few inches of the nose of the rocket, which contained its fuse. The second, third, and fourth chopped the body of the rocket into smaller pieces. The fifth cut removed the solid rocket fuel igniter, and the sixth and seventh cuts chopped the solid rocket fuel.
Next on its journey, the computer-generated version of the rocket fell down an illustration of a chute and landed in a furnace. The real pieces, however, were dropped in a specific order to minimize the mixing of parts and the chances of any significant explosions occurring in the furnace.
Sitting at his console, controlling the temperature of the furnace, Ashley worked his magic and within 6 minutes, one more M55 rocket, and its deadly contents, was destroyed.