SALT LAKE CITY A mix-up over a tiny vial of a deadly nerve agent led to the overnight lock-down of the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, a sprawling, remote base in Utah where the U.S. military conducts weapons tests, officials said on Thursday.
A routine lab inventory on Wednesday indicated that a small quantity of VX nerve agent was missing, prompting the base commander to shut down the installation as a precaution while a search was conducted, according to a statement by the base.
The missing vial, containing 1 milliliter, or about a quarter teaspoon, of liquid VX, was found at about 3 a.m. local time, and the lock-down was ended, the statement said.
The base commander, Colonel William King, told reporters in a news briefing carried on local television that the mishap resulted from VX liquid "misplaced into a different container that was improperly marked."
"We're still investigating because that to us is a serious mishandling of our agents," King said.
He added that the lock-down was necessary to ensure "that there was no malicious intent to put (the chemical) somewhere else so that someone could later steal it."
"As of right now, we have determined that there was no malicious intent. This was simply an administrative error in handling in our process," he said.
More than 1,000 employees were forced to remain within the confines of the 798,000-acre installation after their shifts ended during the shutdown on Wednesday and early Thursday. But no one was injured in the episode.
"The agent in question has been accounted for, and no one was ever in any danger," the base statement said. "All personnel are uninjured and safe. The public is safe as well."
The Proving Ground, covering a swath of desert about the size of Rhode Island some 90 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, is the Army's principal facility for testing of conventional munitions as well as chemical and biological weapons.
National Guard troops and the U.S. Air Force also conduct bombing and combat training exercises there, as do Special Forces troops headed for deployment in Afghanistan.
VX is an amber-colored, odorless, tasteless oily liquid that evaporates very slowly, almost like motor oil. One of the most lethal chemical weapons agents ever synthesized, it can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled as a vapor, causing rapid death by paralysis.
A small drop on the finger can soak through the skin, attacking a person's nervous system and proving fatal in minutes.
One milliliter of VX "certainly would be enough to kill one person. It could kill a hundred if it were sprayed properly," Martin Caravati, medical director of the Utah Poison Control Center, told Reuters.