Fort Bliss: Contaminated bunker not a threat

Published on Friday, 19 July 2013 13:47 - Written by By Juan Carlos Llorca, The Associated Press

FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — Fort Bliss officials downplayed the threat of radiation exposure Friday related to a contaminated bunker on the West Texas military post.

Leaders said additional testing shows the contamination is contained to the floor of the bunker at Biggs Army Airfield. Nuclear weapons were assembled and stored in the bunker in the 1950s and 1960s when the facility belonged to the Air Force.

Officials earlier this week announced that a tip from a retired airman had prompted an investigation, which revealed radioactivity in the bunker and called into question the safety of personnel. But they said Friday there was no risk to those who worked in the bunker during the Cold War-era or more recently.

Radiation levels in the area of the bunker are equal to those naturally occurring in the environment, Maj. Joe Buccino said.

The bunker now is a repository for rifles and other weapons used for training by soldiers preparing for deployment.

Buccino also said testing conducted this week in the area of the bunker and of the water table below has minimized initial concerns about exposure to uranium.

"Based on the initial assessments, we have good news — the water is normal, it is safe," Buccino said, adding that the equipment stored in the bunker since 2003 isn't contaminated, he said.

The airman who contacted authorities about two months ago had expressed concern with contaminated residue. Rags and other items used in assembling nuclear weapons were placed in containers decades ago and buried in proximity to the bunker, which is one of nine near the airfield.

Buccino said the focus for investigators in the coming months is to determine where containers are buried. He said they'll rely on old documents and anecdotal evidence from workers at the time to pinpoint the locations.

As for searching for potentially contaminated buildings, Buccino said the base will only search specific facilities if alerted.

"We can't go on a witch hunt," he said. "We have a lot of area."

Fort Bliss stretches across 1,700 square miles — more than any other military installation in the country.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.