Nevada, Air Force and NASA officials Tuesday urged passage of a bill allowing the nation's sole maker of a key rocket fuel component to move much of its operation to an unpopulated desert area now owned by the federal government.
But an Air Force official raised the possibility that the measure could lead to flight restrictions that might interfere with training exercises carried out by nearby Nellis Air Force Base.The legislation grew out of explosions last May in Henderson, Nev., at one of the only two plants in the United States then producing the solid rocket propellant oxidizer, ammonium perchlorate.
The blasts and subsequent fires leveled the Pacific Engineering and Production Co. plant, leaving two people dead and more than 350 others injured.
The disaster also forced the evacuation of hundreds of area residents and caused an estimated $75 million in property damage as far away as Las Vegas, 12 miles to the northwest.
The nearby Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. plant - also in Henderson - was left as the nation's only producer of ammonium perchlorate, cutting production of the crucial chemical in half.
Ammonium perchlorate is the principal component of fuel that powers the space shuttle's booster rockets and a various military missiles, including Peacekeepers, the Minuteman, the Trident and small ICBMs.
The United States also is the primary supplier for its Western allies, and the importance of the chemical to foreign countries was underscored by the recent seizure of a clandestine shipment of the chemical bound for Iran.
The disaster at Henderson prompted state and local leaders, as well as Kerr-McGee, to seek to move the most dangerous operations of the plant outside populated areas.
"People in southern Nevada are in fear - they are afraid," Rep. James Bilbray, D-Nev., a co-sponsor of the bill, told a House Interior subcommittee.
The measure would clear the way for construction of a new Kerr-McGee plant on a federally owned, 3,840-acre tract of desert ringed by mountains about 20 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, D-Nev.
The bill would allow the sale of the land to Kerr-McGee within 90 days, bypassing the normal process of land-use and environmental studies that would otherwise take years.
If the bill is enacted, Kerr-McGee could open its new plant at the so-called Apex site by the first half of 1991, said George Rice, a senior vice president of the company. PEPCON, the company devastated by the explosions in May, is expected to resume production at a new facility near Cedar City, Utah, in July.