Contaminated depot poses no threat to public health, commission claims

December 29, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has assured Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest that the former Army weapons depot on Ordnance Road, although contaminated by radioactive thorium, poses no immediate threat to public health and safety.

In a letter received yesterday by the 1st District congressman's office, the NRC said contamination on the county-owned property is limited to a few areas. It cited the floors and the soil underneath or immediately adjacent to eight of the nine former warehouses.

"A person could stand at the point of maximum exposure on the site for over 2,000 hours without receiving a dose that approaches applicable standards," the NRC wrote.

But others have argued that any level of exposure to radiation poses a health threat. "The problem with radiation is that even small doses are significant," Diane D'Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Research Service said in an interview last month. "Every exposure increases a person's risk."

The NRC letter was a reply to 14 questions Mr. Gilchrest directed at officials concerning the health threat and cleanup of the former depot. Mr. Gilchrest was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The 85-acre tract has not been ruled out by County Executive Robert R. Neall as the site for a new detention center, depending on how quickly the federal government completes the cleanup. But Louise Hayman, Mr. Neall's spokeswoman, said the process is "in limbo" because "we've had no official communication with the NRC at all."

An NRC survey at Ordnance Road in May found soil around the buildings contained concentrations more than 12 times the level the NRC considers excessive. The concentrations in a sample taken from beneath a warehouse crawl space was 64 times the excessive level.

Thorium nitrate, which was placed at the site by the U.S. government for potential use in a thorium-cycle nuclear reactor, was stored in granular form in barrels. But the thorium absorbed water over time, causing it to turn into a liquid that leaked through the drums and contaminated the flooring and soil.

Thorium has a higher energy radiation level than most radioactive isotopes, and a person can be exposed merely by standing near it. At the maximum exposure rate recorded at the Ordnance Road site, a person would receive about 56 millirem of radiation after being exposed for 2,000 hours, or the equivalent of about a year of 40-hour work weeks. NRC guidelines prohibit exposure at more than 100 millirem per year.

The NRC cleared the Ordnance Road land for sale in 1977, after the warehouses had been decommissioned, saying that any radioactive material had been removed. But there were no guidelines at that time for radiation in the soil, which is where most of the thorium is located. Those guidelines were not devised until 1981. The NRC re-surveyed the site after Glen Burnie residents and county officials raised concerns about possible contamination during deliberations over its use as the location for a detention center.

The contaminated material will be removed and taken to a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, possibly in Barnwell, or Clive, Utah. The letter makes clear that although the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and the General Services Administration (GSA) are haggling over responsibility for cleaning up the site, the federal government will ultimately pick up the tab.

The two federal agencies had been given a deadline of Dec. 4 by the NRC for coming up with a plan for dealing with the contamination. Representatives from the GSA and the DLA met with NRC officials on Nov. 23 and pushed back the deadline until the end of January.

"At this point in time, the NRC does not object to the pace DLA and GSA have taken to resolve the question as to which agency has responsibility for remediating the site," the letter said. "If unwarranted delays occur . . , NRC will consider enforcement action."

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