The U.S. Army plans to spend $78.6 million to test a new high-tech method to destroy chemical arms. However, most such arms will already have been destroyed by the time that new technology is tested and ready for use.

So, the Army admits the costly new method will probably never be used.While that may upset many U.S. taxpayers, it is actually good economic news for Utah. Most of the money will be spent at Tooele Army Depot and the project's timing could save jobs there that might otherwise be lost at the scheduled close of another test facility.

The new destruction method is called "cryofracture." It is designed to freeze chemical arms by dipping them in liquid nitrogen, which allows them to be safely crushed, then incinerated, with all parts burned in the same oven.

It is designed as a back-up to another system of arms destruction called "reverse assembly," which was pioneered at Tooele. "Reverse assembly" removes detonation devices, punches holes in the arms to drain liquid nerve or mustard agent and burns the different arms parts in different ovens to control emissions.

Army documents say the new technology holds promise of being somewhat safer because it reduces munition handling. But it hasn't been tested extensively, unlike "reverse assembly."

The new method, however, may be more expensive and take years longer to destroy the nation's stockpile of aging, deteriorating chemical arms some of which date back to the World War I era.

Congress has ordered the destruction of all such chemical arms by 1994. But the Army has said it needs until 1997 to destroy them using the "reverse assembly" procedure. The newer cryofracture method would require five years beyond that, according to the Army's "Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program Implementation Plan," given to Congress recently.

That document outlines the construction schedule of chemical arms destruction facilities at eight arms storage sites in the continental United States, plus at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific.

It calls for construction of a cryofracture pilot plant in the south area of Tooele Army Depot. But testing there would not be completed until late 1994.

By then, all other scheduled chemical arms destruction facilities are to either be completed or far along in construction, and much of the nation's chemical arms stockpile would already have been destroyed.

Also, each additional year of storing the arms to allow possible later use of cryofracture is estimated to cost $65 million, and it increases the likelihood of accidental release of nerve gas from the aging weapons.

So why even test the new technology?

"Congress has ordered us to keep it alive," said Marilyn Tischbin, public affairs officer for the program manager for chemical demilitarization at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

"At one time, it wanted us to build a full-scale cryofracture plant. But we scaled that back to a pilot facility," she said. Army documents estimate that move saved $54 million.

Reasons the Army listed for not building a full-scale plant included that not enough testing had been performed to ensure cryofracture is safe, and it worried that residents near other "reverse assembly" destruction facilities might think newer technology is better and call for it in their areas.

While Tischbin admitted that the new technology would come too late to be incorporated into other planned destruction facilities, she said it may still have some benefit.

For example, she said, if problems arise with the reverse assembly procedure, cryofracture could be used as a back-up system. She said it also holds some promise for use in the destruction of conventional arms although testing for that has not yet been scheduled.

It will also benefit Utah's economy and Tooele Army Depot employees.

The new test plant will be adjacent to the Chemical Agent Munitions Destruction System facility, where the "reverse assembly" procedure is now being tested and refined, and could save some jobs there.

Army documents point out, "The current CAMDS mission will be accomplished before the pilot plant is constructed, and existing CAMDS facilities, equipment and staff would be available for use in the cryofracture testing."

Many of the jobs at CAMDS may have already been safeguarded, however, because the Army is also building a full-scale reverse assembly destruction plant at Tooele, where 42 percent of the nation's chemical arms are stored.

So many arms are stored there, in fact, that the Army is being forced to begin building that full-scale plant next year to ensure all arms can be destroyed by 1997.

That means the plant will not be able to take advantage of further testing of the first full-scale reverse assembly plant at Johnston Atoll. Construction of other plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and Oregon was delayed to incorporate lessons to be learned at Johnston.

Tischbin said another use of the cryofracture plant may be to help destroy the large number of munitions at Tooele.

After its test mission is complete in 1994, she said the Army could expand the cryofracture plant or continue using it at its original size to work in tandem with the reverse assembly plant to more quickly destroy the arms.