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REFRESH: Jefferson Proving Ground – The NRC’s Role

Jim Smith
Health Physicist
Materials Decommissioning Branch

refresh leafMost people think of nuclear reactors when they think of the NRC. Some may think of nuclear medicine or uranium. Many would be surprised to know we are also involved in regulating radioactive materials at U.S. military sites.

Although nuclear weapons are completely outside our purview, some military sites need an NRC license to possess and use certain nuclear materials. For example, the Army has a license to possess depleted uranium (DU) at a site in Indiana called Jefferson Proving Ground.

We wrote previously about the Army’s September 2014 plan to decommission that site. It asked the NRC to terminate the license, with certain access restrictions as allowed under our regulations. The NRC sent the Army a number of questions on the proposal.

In an April letter, the Army said it now believes the environmental and occupational risks of decommissioning outweigh the benefits. So instead of decommissioning and releasing the site for restricted use, the Army envisions keeping its license, at least for now, along with the security and surveillance requirements currently in place. The Army will follow up with a justification for its request for an exemption from the NRC’s “timeliness rule.” This rule requires licensees to notify the NRC within 60 days of permanently ceasing activities at a licensed site and either begin decommissioning or submit a decommissioning plan within 12 months. Rather than decommissioning the site, the Army now is proposing to maintain its license for possession of the depleted uranium penetrators dispersed across the impact area of the site.

The Army began using the 56,000-acre site in 1941 to test fire all sorts of munitions. The Army fired more than 24 million rounds before testing came to an end in 1994 and the installation closed in 1995 as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Act. Today, the Army still owns about 51,000 acres of the original site, but nearly all of that is managed as a wildlife refuge. The Indiana Air National Guard uses another part of the site as an air-to-ground bombing training range. The 51,000-acre area contains unexploded ordnance —explosive munitions that could still go off—and live detonators, primers and fuzes, and can’t ever be used for farming, housing or commerce.

In the early 1980’s, the NRC got involved with the site when the Army wanted to test DU rounds there. The DU in these rounds is able to penetrate the armor on a tank. Over a 10-year period, the Army fired about 220,000 pounds of DU projectiles into a 2,080-acre area known as the DU Impact Area, which lies within the 51,000 acres with unexploded ordnance. The Army still has its NRC license for the DU and now wants to maintain the DU Impact Area as it currently exists.

duPictureAbout 162,000 pounds of DU remain in the DU Impact Area. There is also a high density of unexploded ordnance in this area. The Army proposes to leave the DU and unexploded ordnance in place because cleanup would be very dangerous and very expensive. To keep people out of the Jefferson Proving Ground site, the Army will keep the current access barriers—including a perimeter fence with padlocked gates and security warning signs—as well as legal and administrative controls.

We expect to have public conversations with the Army as it develops its justification for continued licensed possession of the depleted uranium. These discussions will either be in the form of in-person meetings or teleconferences. Either way, we will announce them ahead of time on our public meeting website. The public will be able to ask questions of the NRC. The Army may, but is not required to, answer questions from the public.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit or update previous posts. This first ran in December 2014.

5 responses to “REFRESH: Jefferson Proving Ground – The NRC’s Role

  1. Engineer-Poet April 14, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    What sort of radiological or military threat does dispersed and effectively unrecoverable DU pose, that justifies the expense of having to license areas where it is sitting and doing nothing (save its natural decay into lead)?

    • Moderator April 14, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      The NRC’s legislative mandate includes allowing the possession and use of radioactive materials while protecting public health and safety and the environment. The U.S. Army possesses licensable quantities of depleted uranium at these sites. To fulfill our legislative mandate, we have licensed the Army for possession of the material.

      Questions about military threats would need to be directed to the military.

      • Engineer-Poet April 14, 2016 at 10:59 pm

        Why does depleted uranium count as “radioactive material”, and potassium chloride water-softener salt (roughly as active per unit mass) not count?

  2. CaptD April 13, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    This is just one of the huge Military areas in the USA that is off limits to the public because it has already been contaminated by radioactivity of one form or another. These areas could easily be used to store nuclear waste from nuclear reactors at a price much less than what a massive storage facility (similar to Yucca Mountain) might cost. The NRC should be doing studies to determine where the largest already secured areas are and how they might be used to safeguard our nuclear waste for periods of 100 years, since after 100 years, technology will have been developed that is unknown today.
    NRC Low Cost Nuclear Waste Suggestion:

    Here is my low cost solution for all that nuclear waste that we will have to deal with as Solar (of all flavors) become our Energy KING:

    I’ve already suggested that the NRC offer a Million Dollar Prize for the best way to “solve” the nuclear waste storage problem” for the next 50 years, so please consider this idea as my “low cost” solution to America’s “long term” radioactive waste storage problem:

    Make use of our Military Testing Bases and or our MOA’s (Military Operation Area’s) out west, which are really huge tracts of land (think tens of thousands of acres) used ONLY by the military and already secured by them 24/7!

    Placing these very large (heavy) concrete casks in a poke-a-dot pattern will allow for at least 50 to 100 years of storage, safe from everything except a War, (in which case every reactor is just as vulnerable) and then revisit the storage problem then; at which time, probably a future solution will allow for an even better, lower cost “final solution”…

    Because these casks would be very large and all look alike nobody would know what was in any one of them, which would be yet another level of security for the casks containing even higher levels of nuclear waste! An ideal outside coating for these casks would be similar to the spray-on “bed liner” used for pickup trucks that not only prevents rusting and or damage for the life of the vehicle but would also seal the casks to prevent leakage of any kind!

    Hopefully these casts would be similar in size to a large shipping container so that existing material handling equipment could be used to load, unload and or move them about without “inventing” a mega hauler vehicle. By keeping the “footprint” of these casks similar to a large 40 foot container, the stacking and or placement of them might also be semi or fully automated which would not only save money but again keep the exact location of any specific cask secret! The monitoring of these casks 24/7/365 could even be done via satellite since these casks are similar in size to rocket launchers which are easily seen from space.

    In another 50 to 100 years, storage technology will be such that, yet another lower cost solution for all this waste will be found, and then it can be considered verses continuing to using the above storage plan… Perhaps sometime In the future, a safe low cost solution like lifting it all into space via a space elevator* and then shoving it in an orbit that will send it into the SUN for final recycling will present itself…

    BTW: Area 51 (which does now actually exist officially) contains huge tracts of land that has already been used as a nuclear testing site (and is still contaminated and is now off limits to all but a few forever) which would allow all this material to effectively disappear…

    * The Space Elevator Project is something that the NRC should help fund ASAP, because it represents the best way to actually eliminate storing nuclear waste on Earth!

    • Public Pit Bull April 13, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      As soon as I saw this NRC blog on the Jefferson Proving Ground I was hoping that Capt D would respond & he did so, so well! Speaking of “proving grounds” I hope that soon the NRC will actually “prove” to all Americans that they are really serious about public safety & that they will finally do the right thing. That is of course to get all this dangerous nuclear … out of our backyards. What gets me the most is that the NRC washes their hands of any responsibility for doing just that. They are waiting for others, our President, our Congress, the DOE, and God knows who else to act. Yet the NRC is that same agency who continues to license & extend the licenses of nuke plants, all the while allowing all this nuke …(I mean waste) to continue to pile up at over 90 sites all over the US. And the vast majority of it sits close to large population centers. How sad & tragic!

      Moderator Note: (…) Verbiage was removed to adhere to blog comment guidelines.

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