1994-10-16 Army Times – What’s contaminated? Services can’t say for sure

WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense is unable to clean up radioactive contamination on military bases because it doesn’t have accurate records of where the waste is, according to congressional investigators. The services have reported 420 sites with low levels of radioactive waste. But investigators from the General Accounting Office said the lists are outdated, inaccurate and incomplete because some sites have been counted twice while others have not been identified. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) said that without even basic information on locations and the level of contamination on installations “DoD cannot assure us that all necessary steps have been taken to protect the safety of those in the service and the American public.” Glenn heads the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the Armed Services subcommittee on military readiness and defense infrastructure.

Glenn is not convinced

It makes it awful hard to control and clean up a dangerous material if you do not even know what that material is. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) Chairman, Governmental Affairs Committee
Pentagon officials, responding to Glenn’s complaint, said in a statement that while there may be problems with the files, there is “no question that the Department of Defense has imposed every safeguard possible and every safeguard required by law to control and secure its radioactive material and to protect public health and safety.” Glenn, however, remains skeptical. “It makes it awful hard to control and clean up a dangerous material if you do not even know what that material is,” Glenn said. Radioactive waste comes from a variety of sources. There are a few sites contaminated from nuclear weapons accidents, but most contain industrial waste from medical facilities, research laboratories, weapons testing, and nuclear propulsion reactors. Exposure to low levels of radiation does not pose the same risk as high-level exposure. But medical research has found that long-term exposure to low radiation levels can pose a health risk and any exposure to plutonium and other heavy-metal substances is risky.

For example, there is a deactivated nuclear reactor and stored nuclear material, at Fort Greely, Alaska, depleted uranium in several target areas at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and radioactive waste storage sites for medical equipment at many installations.

Washing aircraft a source

The Air Force reports residual contamination – from washing down aircraft that flew into nuclear clouds – at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.; depleted uranium, from munitions tests, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and radioactive dials, gauges and switches from the remains of B-58 aircraft at Grissom Air Force Base; Ill.

The Navy says it has depleted uranium from explosive experiments at several sites at Naval Surface Weapons Center, Dahlgren, Va.; burned radioactive clothing at a landfill at the Naval Communications Station, Stockton, Calif.; and radioactive animal carcasses, from medical research, buried at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where one building has been sealed off.

List can’t be trusted

The Army has a list of 260 radiation waste sites, but investigators have reason to doubt its accuracy. At Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, for example, the Army lists 30 waste sites, but investigators found only 12, 11 of which are test firing ranges and medical buildings with on-going activities.

The Air Force lists 147 sites, but a spot check by investigators found the list outdated. A waste site listed at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, has been cleaned up and is no longer considered contaminated, the report says. But the Air Force failed to mention plutonium contamination on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean from a 1960s rocket explosion, the report said.

The Defense Nuclear Agency, responsible for the $15 million cleanup that has been under way since 1990, also failed to report the contamination, the report says.

The Navy had reported only 13 radioactive sites when the Pentagon compiled a list in 1992, but came up with a total of 49 potentially contaminated sites when pressed in 1993. Spot checks by investigators did not find any inaccuracies in the current Navy list.
Glenn complained in a Sept. 29 letter to Secretary of Defense William Perry that the Pentagon has been promising for years to take care of dangerous materials but has not made much progress.

In 1986, several military and civilian personnel were contaminated at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, when a drum containing Americium-24 – a radioactive substance – was opened.

The resulting cleanup cost $2 million, and the Air Force was fined $200,000 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for illegal storage of materials.

In the aftermath of that incident, defense officials promised to keep a better inventory of radioactive waste. “These have been fairly empty promises,” Glenn said.


I am not a doctor or attorney, and cannot give medical advice or legal advice.

If you, a friend, or loved one has been injured or died as a result of the contamination at a DOD Superfund Site please follow the steps that are outlined at Get Help.

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