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Military investigating radioactive material found in, near bunker on East Fort Bliss

By Darren Hunt, DHuntabc7@yahoo.com
Published On: Jul 16 2013 11:19:27 AM CDT
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 10:26:49 PM CST

Courtesy Fort Bliss

Aerial view of the area being investigated by Fort Bliss and other agencies for radioactive rays and material. Land is on Fort bliss.

FORT BLISS, Texas -

An investigation has begun at Fort Bliss after a small amount of radioactive material was found in and near a bunker on East Fort Bliss where Army training weapons were  stored since 2003.

Prior to the 1960s, before it was turned over to the Army, the Air Force stored uranium there for use in nuclear weapons. According to Fort Bliss officials, there is no indication anyone is at risk although they did find low levels of alpha and beta when initial assessment was made.

Although elevated, these levels only slightly exceed regulatory guidelines.

Army Environmental Command is on post now investigating. The area has been sealeed off, the bunker is now closed and locked.

They were alerted to this concern by an Air Force retiree from Florida who worked at Biggs back in '50s and '60s.

Material of concern was buried in sealed containers 12 to 18 inches below ground but above the water table.

Closest El Paso neighborhood is a mile and a half away. Thirty people who currently worked in building from time to time have been notified and are being tested.

"It is important that we be guided by facts and not fear," Congressman Pete Gallego said in a statement. "The safety and well-being of our servicemen and women is the top priority.  Major General MacFarland has responded to this situation in a transparent manner that puts the safety of soldiers and civilians first. From my position on the House Armed Services Committee, I'm working with the Pentagon to ensure Fort Bliss has all the resources needed to address and resolve the situation.  I am also working to find more details about the history of activity at Biggs Airfield over previous decades. I will continue to be a staunch advocate for soldiers and civilians and will work to find out whether similar circumstances exist at other military installations. The Pentagon must act responsibly and investigate any other military installations that may also need to be tested.  The Congress must ensure that the Pentagon has the resources it needs to fully address this issue."

Explanation of radiation rays found at the site and whether they are harmful or not

Alpha and beta rays were found in and near a bunker in East Fort Bliss. Gamma rays, which are the most harmful, were not found at the location.

  • Alpha particles do not travel very far (only centimeters in air) and are easily stopped.  They will not penetrate paper or the outer layer of your skin so they are not an external hazard to the body.  Internally, however, they are of more concern. 
  • Beta particles can have enough energy to penetrate paper or skin but not materials like wood or plastic. 
  • Gamma-ray radiation has a penetration ability greater than alpha or beta radiation.  X-rays are the same as gamma radiation except they are produced from the orbital electrons of atoms rather than the nucleus. (Lead is usually used to prevent gamma ray exposure)

All three types of radiation can come from either natural or human-made sources, according to the Idaho National Laboratory Site.

More on gamma rays from EPA

Both direct (external) and internal exposure to gamma rays or X-rays are of concern. Gamma rays can travel much farther than alpha or beta particles and have enough energy to pass entirely through the body, potentially exposing all organs. A large portion of gamma radiation largely passes through the body without interacting with tissue the body is mostly empty space at the atomic level and gamma rays are vanishingly small in size. X-rays behave in a similar way, but have slightly lower energy. By contrast, alpha and beta particles inside the body lose all their energy by colliding with tissue and causing damage.

Gamma rays can ionize atoms in tissue directly or cause what are known as "secondary ionizations." Ionizations are caused when energy is transferred from gamma rays to atomic particles such as electrons (which are essentially the same as beta particles). These energized particles then interact with tissue to form ions through secondary ionizations. Because gamma rays are photons and thus interact less frequently with matter than alpha and beta particles, they are more penetrating and the damage they cause can occur much farther into tissue (that is, farther from the source of radiation).

Timeline

June 26: Air Force Safety Center inspection, last day personnel entered building

July 3: Final report from Air Force Safety Center delivered to Fort Bliss

July 10: Garrison Commander briefed

July 11: Radiation sign posted on building 11507

July 12: Began preliminary environmental testing

July 13: Planning meeting

July 14: Established planning meeting 2

July 15: Notification of personnel and civil authorities

July 16 (Today) : Call center begins operation

24 hour call center numbers:  (915) 744-1255, 744-1962, 744-8263, 744-8263 for people with concerns

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