Chemical and nuclear weapons experts are seen July 16 inside an area where radiation contamination was discovered coming out of a bunker, right, in Fort Bliss, Texas. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)
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This image provided by the U.S. Army shows the area of Fort Bliss where the military is beginning an investigation into possible nuclear contamination found in a former nuclear weapons bunker in an area northeast of Biggs Airfield, and determining whether people on the West Texas post have been exposed. (Army/via The El Paso Times via AP)
FORT BLISS, TEXAS — Army and federal investigators have detected radiation in a former nuclear weapons bunker at Fort Bliss and are trying to determine if anyone or other buildings on the West Texas post may have been contaminated, officials said Tuesday.
A group of investigators from the Army, experts on nuclear and chemical weapons, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigations Weapons of Mass Destruction team arrived Tuesday to the desert area where the bunker is located. It sits along with other above-ground concrete storage facilities completely buried in dirt. A yellow and red sign warning of radiation danger could be seen on the steel doors of bunker 11507.
Fort Bliss leaders said an investigation that began about two months ago revealed levels of radiation in the igloo-like bunker that was used by the Air Force for the assembly and storage of nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. The Air Force transferred the area to the Army in 1966.
It is not clear why the Air Force did not tell the Army about the risk.
Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino said epoxy paint was applied to the interior of the bunker years ago to contain the radioactivity, but that over the years the paint has become chipped, allowing the radioactive surface to become exposed.
Although further tests will determine the nature of the radiation Buccino said it originated most likely from uranium of the “old unsealed nuclear weapons” that used to be handled in the bunker.
Buccino said the levels of radiation are low and that the contamination is contained to the immediate area where the bunker is located. He said the closest residential neighborhood is about one mile away and that area residents are safe.
The epoxy paint chips “could have come loose and if you ingest them that’s the concern,” he said. “They couldn’t have come loose and then gone into the El Paso community; they don’t travel that far.”
However, he said, they will know more once the Army Environmental Command finishes its report. He did not offer an estimate as to when that report might be finished but hinted that “the investigation is in its infancy.”
Rifles and other weaponry have been stored in the bunker since 2003, but Buccino said it’s unlikely that soldiers who used the equipment are contaminated as a result. About 30 people who regularly work in the bunker taking inventory and conducting other tasks were being tested for radioactive contamination.
All personnel that have been working in the bunker — including contractors, civilian employees and service members — have been notified of the risk. It was not immediately clear how many people over the past decade were exposed to the radiation.
Based on tests done with Fort Bliss’ limited capabilities equipment, the post experts’ partial assessment showed that “there is some low level of contamination that could be transferred to personnel.” However, Buccino added, “there is no immediate health or safety risk to the soldiers that received the weapons for training.”
The investigation was triggered by a call from a man who worked at Fort Bliss in the 1950s when it was operated by the Air Force. He told post leaders that contaminated residue such as rags and other items had been buried in sealed containers there and expressed concerns that any new housing at the sprawling military post could dig up the contamination.
The residue is buried in the vicinity of the bunker complex, although officials said they do not know exactly where.
Mark Cauthers, Fort Bliss’ deputy to the garrison commander, said the Army will conduct tests to find the buried materials and determine whether there are other areas where radioactive residue was buried.
Officials did not identify the former worker who contacted officials about two months ago. But they said he was likely exposed to the contaminated residue. The man, now in his 70s, is not showing symptoms of exposure, they said.