Have No Fear: Army Finds Missing Vial of Lethal Nerve Agent

Jack Bauer can stand down: The Army has found a vial of deadly VX nerve agent that went missing at a remote Utah base, sparking an overnight lockdown of the facility.

Officials at the Dugway Proving Ground -- an 800,000-acre testing facility 90 miles southwest of Salt Lake City -- closed the facility down without warning on Wednesday evening, forcing more than 1,000 military personnel, civilian government employees, and contractors to bunk there overnight.

Army officials said the facility’s commanders ordered the lockdown after a routine inventory of the base’s chemical laboratory discovered a 1 milliliter discrepancy between the amount of VX that was supposed to be stored there and the amount accounted for.

The missing VX was far from a trivial matter. The model for a lethal terrorist weapon used in season 5 of the spy TV show 24, the man-made chemical agent can cause convulsions, paralysis, and death. It’s odorless and tasteless, and people can be exposed to the weapon through skin contact, eye contact, or ingesting contaminated food and water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it “is the most potent of all nerve agents,” with symptoms appearing within just a few seconds of exposure to vaporized VX.

VX was used as a weapon in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and Japanese terrorists experimented with it in the 1990s, though they never used it in a successful attack. It’s not known if al-Qaida or other militant Islamist groups are making any active attempt to weaponize VX for use against Western targets.

The Army issued a press release on Thursday morning announcing that they’d found the missing vial elsewhere at Dugway at approximately 3 a.m. MST. “The situation at Dugway Proving Ground has concluded,” it said. “The agent in question has been accounted for, and no-one was ever in any danger.”

The release was clearly meant to calm the nerves of those worried about the missing nerve agent, but its tone may have inadvertently had the opposite effect by drawing wider attention to the fact that the vial had been temporarily lost in the first place.