My Turn: Army underplaying depleted uranium risk

Suppose you were to hear that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had last week authorized the U.S. Army to release depleted uranium (DU) into the atmosphere at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA)?


Suppose you were to hear that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had last week authorized the U.S. Army to release depleted uranium (DU) into the atmosphere at the Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA)?

Would that concern you?

That is somewhat of a bold claim but it is based on fairly high statistical probability. It is a known fact that the Army used DU in training exercises in the mid-1960s at PTA and Schofield. What is still in question is how much was used and where it was used.

The Army made an arm-waving guess by identifying areas of PTA now called radiation controlled areas (RCA) but an extensive search of the areas found less than 1 percent of the minimum amount of DU claimed to be used. That was accepted by the NRC in issuing a DU possession license to the Army. Where is the rest of it?

Truthfully, no one knows and within general probability, some could be in the current burn area. In all the intervening years, continued blasting and bombing at PTA probably dispersed a lot of DU to locations other than the RCAs. Then during a vegetation fire, DU would be released into the atmosphere by burning plants that may have taken up the DU through the roots or by heating rocks and soils onto which some previously migrating DU particulates might have adhered.

The Army, NRC and even the state Department of Health arm-wave that testing the air for DU, a known toxic substance used widely in the recent Middle East wars, is not needed because the amount released certainly must be less than the amount regulated for public safety, set at 10 millirems per year. Millirem. Raise your hand if you know what that is. It is more than zero. And we should not have to endure more than zero.

Monitoring and analyzing for DU is so straightforward it should be done and include even other toxins. But it is not popular because, heaven forbid, what if you end up finding some! In reality, the Army program is suitable for them. If they have no intention of cleaning it up, why monitor?

Dengue fever wins the popularity contest this year for health attention. If the mosquito bites, the disease can manifest itself in a few days. If you inhale a DU particle, it could lodge in the lung, and it might take a 20-40 year latency period before a related disease will occur. Don’t expect any relief from any government agency entrusted to protect your health. They have now in place their mantras supporting each other to defend continued release of DU. In the licensing process, the Army assured the NRC that a fire, particularly within the RCA, was highly unlikely because of the sparse vegetation at PTA. Here we have an example of a fire initiated by a training activity that has burned for nearly two weeks. At a minimum, all activities at the RCAs must cease. That land should be declared a toxic waste land and withdrawn from use forever.


But it won’t happen. The need for training will surpass the need for any collateral damage to military or civilian personnel who are placed in harm’s way. Certainly, the civilian and military personnel at PTA are at greater risk for exposure to DU. But if you drive the Saddle Road past PTA, keep your windows up. How great is the risk? We don’t know. Some places take no chances. Kuwait demanded the U.S. clean up an area where DU was involved in a fire and 6,700 tons of sand were taken to Idaho for disposal. There was even a clean-up at Schofield where its RCA was to be reconfigured into a battlefield training area. But no such cleanup for PTA. In the meantime, the Army chooses to play a tough-guy game with the very people it has pledged to protect.

Mike Reimer, PhD, is a retired geologist who lives in Kailua-Kona