Environment / After years of denying the existence of depleted uranium (DU) at its installations in Hawaii, the Army is now seeking a permit to possess tons of the radioactive material.
DU has been confirmed at Schofield Barracks and the Pohakuloa Training Area, and is suspected at the Makua Military Reservation and Kahoolawe. The toxic material was used to make M101 spotting rounds for the Davy Crockett recoilless gun, one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever built. Soldiers were trained on the weapon in Hawaii and at least eight other states throughout the 1960s.
“Enough depleted uranium remains on the sites to require an NRC possession license and environmental monitoring and physical security programs to ensure protection of the public and the environment,” according to a press release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which this week is conducting hearings in Hawaii on the Army’s application.
The material is of concern because it has been found on active firing ranges, including the area where the Stryker Brigade plans to train at Schofield. When DU is burned or exploded, it creates tiny particles of depleted uranium oxide (DUO) that travel on the wind and can penetrate skin, respiratory masks and protective clothing, said Dr. Lorin Pang, a medical advisor to Hawaii County on the issue of DU.
“If it’s inhaled, then it’s in your lungs,” Pang said. “[It’s] insoluble and persists in the body for decades and becomes the most dangerous form of radiation of all, because it’s in the body.”
The Army is pursuing a single permit to possess and manage residual quantities of DU at all of its American installations. The Army’s disclosure responsibilities under the permit application are limited to the big Davy Crocket round, even though uranium munitions are used in more than 24 weapons systems. The Army’s application does not address DUO.
“It seems like the Army is trying to do the minimum possible on this,” said Cory Harden of the Sierra Club’s Moku Loa group. “Overall, this should be a wakeup call. If something like this was forgotten [from decades past] what else was forgotten?“
Some 29,318 M101 spotting rounds containing 12,232 pounds of DU remain unaccounted for, according to the Army’s permit application. The Army is seeking permission to possess a maximum of 17,600 pounds of DU.
It’s unclear how much DU is located in the Islands, or exactly where. Initial surveys were conducted at just three Hawaii installations, and the effort was severely limited by dense vegetation, rugged terrain and what the military characterized as “safety considerations” due to unexploded ordnance.
“This is exactly the problem,” said Kyle Kajihiro, executive director of the American Friends Service Committee. “If you don’t look, you don’t find and you don’t have to report and be accountable for it.”
Kajihiro said NRC officials advised him they likely will issue the permit because the material is already here. But the agency can impose conditions on how it is possessed and monitored.
The Hawaii County Council has asked the Army to conduct no live fire training in areas contaminated with DU in order to minimize the creation of DUO. But absent a public outcry, Kajihiro believes it’s unlikely the NRC will impose such restrictions, given the strong political support the military enjoys in Hawaii.
The existence of DU in the Islands came to light inadvertently through the ongoing litigation over live fire training at Makua. Kajihiro said the Army has stalled Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests he made in 2007 seeking more details about contamination at Schofield and Pohakuloa.
“There’s just been a sustained effort to keep the public in the dark and bury this,” Kajihiro said. “There needs to be some sort of call to account by the Army: why was this material here and why didn’t you know about it?”
Harden concurred. “The Army has appeared in rather controlled situations where it’s difficult to ask questions. We have repeatedly invited them to a public forum. They’ve been putting us off. Yet they make statements that there’s no risk to public health.”
Kajihiro said the discovery of DU underscores the ongoing environmental contamination issue at Hawaii’s military sites.
“It’s really the toxic cocktail of all the hazardous material out that there that we’re concerned about, with DU one of the more insidious ones,” Kajihiro said. “We need to be prepared to deal with this toxic legacy for a long time and just insist on the highest level of clean-up that’s possible. This stuff wasn’t here to begin with. We shouldn’t have to live with it. It’s a basic decency issue.”
Pang believes it’s “virtually impossible” to clean up the DU, which is why he’s urging the Army to “stop the activities that create DUO” and conduct meaningful air monitoring programs.
Comments on the permit will be accepted through Oct. 13. Submit to John J. Hayes, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Mail Stop T8-F5, Washington, D.C., 20055-0001 or [email: John.Hayes].
To review the application and other documents, visit [www.nrc.gov], click on begin ADAMS search and enter ML090070095, ML091950280, ML090900423 and ML091170322.