NRC to Army: DU monitoring plan won’t work
By Alan D. McNarie
Wednesday, April 28, 2010 12:04 PM HST
The U.S. Army’s plan to monitor the air over Pohakuloa Training Area for depleted uranium has drawn sharp criticism from some Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, activists and independent experts. Now the Army has gotten an admonishment from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“We have concluded that the Plan will provide inconclusive results for the U.S. Army as to the potential impact of the dispersal of depleted uranium (DU) while the Pohakuloa Training Area is being utilized for aerial bombardment or other training exercises,” wrote Rebecca Tadesse, Chief of the NRC’s Materials Decommissioning Branch, in a recent letter to Lt. General Rick Lynch, who heads the Army’s Installation Management Command.
Tadesse and her staff reached that conclusion after reviewing the draft plan proposed by the Army and ORISE, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, which would conduct the monitoring for aerial DU contamination at Pohakuloa and at various other locations around the island. The NRC experts concluded that the plan was inadequate in several areas: the number of air samples planned was “insufficient,” optimum locations for monitoring needed to be determined and established, and “Continuous monitoring should be performed during the testing and also prior to and following testing to determine background conditions,” so that the army would have a basis for comparison with any high readings. The letter also noted that the army proposed to conduct its air monitoring specifically during live firing exercises — even though the Army had told the NRC that it would not “use high explosives and bombs in areas where DU is present.”
“If that is true, why would there be an expectation that DU might be dispersed during such training exercises?” Tadesse asked.
The Army’s handling of the DU issue at Pohakuloa is also drawing fire from some independent experts, including retired army doctor Lorrin Pang, Los Alamos National Laboratory consultant Dr. Marshall Bland, and Dr. Michael Reimer, a retired geologist with a background in radiation monitoring. And Sierra Club researcher Cory Harden has used recently released Army documents to challenge the Army’s own estimates of how much DU may have been released into the environment at Pohakuloa.
“The NRC review seems to vindicate Dr. Pang and myself for claiming that the monitoring was insufficient,” Reimer told BIW.
According to the NRC’s Greg Pukin, his agency doesn’t generally have jurisdiction over weapons, but does have authority over DU and other radionuclides. The Army has applied to the NRC for a permit to possess DU at Pohakuloa — a permit that, if granted, could allow the recently discovered remains of depleted uranium spotter rounds from the Army’s cold-war-era Davy Crockett nuclear howitzer on site at the training area — spotter rounds whose presence in Hawai’i the army had denied until a citizen’s group unearthed an e-mail about their discovery in 2006. A group of local residents, including Harden, antiwar activist Jim Albertini, and native Hawaiian activist Isaac Harp had filed a challenge to the Army’s application on the grounds that its monitoring and clean-up plans were inadequate, but were recently denied standing by the NRC. Harp has appealed that denial.
Both Pang and Reimer testified as experts on April 14 at an NRC phone conference to consider Harp’s complaint. In addition to noting Tadesse’s criticisms, Reimer observed that the 5-micron filters that the army planned to use to capture possible DU particles for monitoring were a bit on the coarse side.
“Five-micron size [particles] would fall out within a mile,” he said. “Smaller sizes may be carried by the wind.” He recommended .45-micron filters.
Pang also challenged the army’s general credibility by citing a number of former army statements about DU that Pang said simply weren’t true.
“The Army stated to the Dept of Health Environmental Chief that inhaled DU (from exploding weaponry) was not a worry since DU is heavier than air and would not become airborne, therefore not inhaled,” he noted, for example. He testified that Army consultants, when discussing the amount of DU needed to produce radiation readings reported by civilian monitors at Pohakuloa, had held out their hands to indicate chunks the size of basketballs.
Pang also claims that an Army study setting human safety thresholds for DU inhalation was scientifically flawed.
“That study has been widely, publicly debunked by the scientific community,” he said. “The Army investigators did not count effects like tumors (both malignant and benign) in the exposed group.”
“The kind of air monitoring that the Army is using, they’ll never find it,” commented Harden at the conference call.
Harden also challenged an Army estimate that about 700 Davy Crocket spotter rounds may have been fired at Pohakuloa.
“To back up their claim they quoted from a report, which I only managed to obtained after ten months of repeated requests,” testified Harden. Their quote for the lower number does not match my copy of the report…. For soldiers to follow training manual requirements of that time, about 2,000 spotting rounds would have been needed at Pohakuloa. Now the Army didn’t find 2,000 spotting rounds recently at Pohakuloa Training Area, only four fragments. They speculate that range clearance may have been done, but offer no evidence to support this theory.”
Based on the discrepancies, the Army’s critics argued that the NRC simply couldn’t trust what the Army said about DU in Hawaii – nor could the public.
“Since we can’t rely on the military to shine their light on the hazards its left behind, we need help from NRC,” Hardin concluded.