WASHINGTON – A firing range at Aberdeen Proving Ground remains contaminated with depleted uranium from the 1970s and needs to be cleaned up before the land can be used for other purposes, officials said.
The Army Research Lab is working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to remove depleted uranium that was left from tests of projectiles there between 1973 and 1979.
Depleted uranium, which is not radioactive at dangerous levels, is used in some anti-tank rounds because of the dense element’s ability to pierce armor. While an NRC official said there is “minimal radioactive danger” at the site, the uranium must be removed before the firing range can be decommissioned for unrestricted use by the proving ground.
“Our major concern is ingestion of the material,” said Ronald Bellamy, chief of the NRC Decommissioning Branch for the region that includes Aberdeen.
Because the uranium is present in the soil in the form of chips that broke off from the projectiles, the smaller particles could be came airborne and possibly inhaled if unearthed, Bellamy said.
Ken Ziegler, the Aberdeen liaison for Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, said the cleanup is a routine manner.
“We’re not aware that [the uranium] creates hazards,” Ziegler said. “This is not something that’s going to glow.”
Richard Markland, the radiation safety officer at Aberdeen, said an initial cleanup was performed in 1979 when the radioactive testing moved indoors from the range. But after additional uranium was detected last year, he said, an additional cleanup was ordered and the NRC was notified.
“We want the NRC to know what we’re doing,” Markland said. “We also want to work with them when we’re done.”
But Bellamy said the cleanup and NRC’s involvement are more than just courtesies. Federal law requires it.
“We knew there was additional cleanup and so did they,” he said. “They had to initiate it.”
While there are various ways to perform such a cleanup, Bellamy said a common process is to filter the uranium chips from the soil. The chips, along with any soil that remains contaminated, are then packaged and sent to an off- site storage facility.
Bellamy said he is confident that the cleanup will be successful.
“There’s nothing unusual about this, it is standard procedure,” he said. “It’s been used many times in other places.”
Both Markland and Bellamy said that the range is well within the perimeters of the proving ground, which occupies miles of southeastern Harford County along the Chesapeake Bay.
Since Aberdeen will contract the work to an outside company, Bellamy said the NRC is involved in primarily an oversight role. Besides approving the cleanup plan, his staff will visit the site during the process and will follow up with their own testing and inspections after the cleanup is over.
“It has to meet our criteria,” Bellamy said. “We have documents to follow and inspectors that are trained.”