By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The U.S. Army maintains that it does not need a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to possess depleted uranium at its training ranges in Hawaii.
But in the event that the NRC decides that a license is needed, the Army wants to avoid the requirement that radiation monitoring be done, on the grounds that the decades-old DU material poses no risk to human health.
The NRC has scheduled a meeting Dec. 12 in Maryland to discuss the draft license with the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, which has jurisdiction over the two places where DU spotting rounds were found in Hawaii — Pohakuloa Training Area and Oahu’s Schofield Barracks.
The draft license was presented by the NRC in July. It places a number of restrictions on the Army, including required consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to taking action that may impact a critical habitat or a threatened or endangered species; the posting of “Caution — Radioactive Material” signs; and continuous air sampling of at least four sites downwind of the area where depleted uranium has been found.
The Army acknowledged in 2007 the presence of depleted uranium at several remote sites in PTA. Depleted uranium, a dense, weakly radioactive metal alloy left over from the uranium enrichment process, was used in the 1960s as a 6.7-ounce spotting round to mimic the trajectory of the M101 Davy Crockett nuclear warhead.
While Army officials have repeatedly downplayed the public health threat, opponents of the military have warned of the possibility of it being pulverized by a high explosive impact during a training exercise, then carried downwind into populated areas.
The Army applied for an NRC license to possess depleted uranium at PTA and Schofield in 2008, while maintaining that it did not believe a license is required.
In July 2011, the NRC issued a “notice of violation” for the presence of depleted uranium at PTA and Schofield, but the commission did not enforce a civil penalty on the Army.
The draft license for the Army to possess up to 8.8 tons of depleted uranium — many times the amount known to exist in Hawaii — would run until the end of 2022.
“Alternatively, the Army believes that a license, if deemed required by the NRC, should only address possession and decommissioning,” the Army wrote in September, in a detailed response to the July draft license. “No restrictions or requirements should be placed upon the Army. This alternative would essentially ‘renew’ the lapsed license granted at the beginning of the Davy Crockett program.”
If that request is also denied, the Army seeks to modify the proposed license conditions that “unduly interfere with Army training and operations,” and that implementing the NRC’s conditions would provide “no health benefits or reductions in risk to human health and the environment or enhancements to public safety.”
The meeting with the Army and the NRC will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Hawaii time Dec. 12. It is open to the public by teleconference. The toll-free number for the call is (877) 521-2306, pass code 8766359. The public is invited to observe the meeting and may ask questions at the end of the business portion of the meeting.
A spokesman for PTA referred inquiries to the NRC and the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, neither of which responded to requests for comment for this article.
“Having the ability to fight and win the nations (sic) wars, while protecting the lives of our Soldiers, requires significant, relevant and realistic training,” the Army said in its written response to the NRC. “The proposed restrictions severely limit this training, putting our soldiers at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.”
Anti-nuclear activist and prominent peace advocate Jim Albertini could not be reached for comment either. However, he did write an open letter to Dominick Orlando of the NRC advising him that the Hawaii Constitution prohibits the disposal of “radioactive material” in the state without the prior approval of a supermajority of both houses of the Legislature. Such a ban may not be enforceable on federal land or for actions taken prior to the enactment of the anti-nuclear clause in 1978.
Regardless, Albertini, who has protested on the grounds of the Federal Building in Hilo every Friday since 2001, is calling for comprehensive testing and monitoring for the presence of depleted uranium in the air and in residents’ bodies.
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.