The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was in Hawaii this week, conducting public hearings on the Army’s application for a permit to possess some 17,600 pounds of radioactive depleted uranium.
Yes, after denying for years that it used the toxic material in the Islands, the Army was finally forced to ‘fess up after the facts came to light in documents produced during litigation over the use of Makua for live fire training.
As I reported in the current issue of Honolulu Weekly:
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.”
Actually, that’s just one of the problems. Another is that what has been confirmed is located on live fire ranges at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area. And that leads to yet another problem:
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. Lorrin 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.”
Before you dismiss Dr. Pang as some sort of nutcase, check out the Department of Defense’s own Depleted Uranium (DU) Radiation Awareness Training Video.
It clearly states the two threats associated with DU — heavy metal toxicity and radioactivity — and outlines precautions that troops should take to minimize them. The video includes the warning:
Avoid the threat of contamination, particularly the depleted uranium dust.
And it ends with this statement:
Bottom line, unless you’re involved in a detonation or fire with DU, the hazards are relatively small.
It was precisely that concern over the detonation of DU and subsequent spread of contaminated dust that prompted the Big Island County Council to pass a resolution in 2008 asking the Army to halt live-fire training in DU contaminated areas.
The Army hasn’t done that, and instead in July issued a report contending the public is not at risk from DU at Pohakuloa. According to an article in The Hawaii Independent, NRC staff echoed that stance in a public meeting held on Oahu:
[Deputy director Keith] McConnell replied: “The DU found is not an issue of safety to the public because the levels of radiation and radioactivity of the DU is so low. Since the range is currently active, decommissioning is not possible. Until the training area is inactive or not being used, it can’t be fully cleaned up.”
However, in their denials of public health risks, both the Army and NRC skirted the issue of dust, even as they acknowledged that DU is in active training areas and can’t be cleaned up. That means it’s subject to being detonated and/or burned, which means dust can indeed be created and, in a windy place like Hawaii, blown just about anywhere.
Needless to say, after hearing the Army lie for years about the presence of DU, folks are leery about trusting the official line that the stuff poses no harm – especially when its own training video states otherwise.
In a further erosion of trust, the Army hasn’t exactly been forthcoming since the presence of DU was revealed:
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?”
But as I reported in The Weekly, the Army's permit application is structured to minimize its accountability:
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.
And that leads us to yet another pressing question associated with the military’s presence in Hawaii: what else is here that they either don’t know about, or haven’t told us about?
It’s worth thinking about, and asking about, what with a big chunk of Kauai’s Westside devoted to PMRF, which the Navy intends to use to conceive, test and deploy a new breed of weaponry and warfare.