ROCK ISLAND, Ill. (Dec. 24, 2013) -- The radioactive material consolidation facility at Rock Island Arsenal is not well-known, but it provides an important function for the Department of Defense.

The Army designated the Joint Munitions Command, known as JMC, headquartered on the arsenal, as the program manager for disposal of excessed low-level radioactive materials in the late 1970s. In 1992, DOD also designated the Army as their executive agent to perform the same mission for the other U.S. military services.

The DOD uses radioactive materials in components in manufactured items that Soldiers use, and from production and storage, research and development, testing, and medical facilities.

Examples of military items include: the use of tritium for illumination of tools like compasses, exit signs, and fire-control devices on howitzers and mortars for low-light firing; the use of thorium for night vision lenses, tank engine parts, or missile skins; and the use of depleted uranium in armor penetrating munitions. The radioactive material is in small quantities, in rugged configurations, designed not to leak.

So, just about every DOD installation has excessed radioactive materials. When an installation's storage area approaches capacity, its staff requests disposal from the JMC Safety/Rad Waste Directorate. The directorate assigns a health physicist to manage the removal and disposal for each site. The main challenge is to safely, securely and most cost-effectively move the material across the country, or around the world, to get to its final resting place, while also maintaining compliance with the abundance of applicable regulations. One answer is consolidation and another is volume reduction.

The disposition process includes preparing and shipping the materials for processing and recycling or burial, based on cost and the potential for reuse of each type of material. Because most shipments are small, one or two 55-gallon drums, and because they come from all over the world, consolidation for bulk shipments is critical for cost effectiveness. In addition to the facility at Rock Island Arsenal, JMC partners with the Army Test, Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment facilities at Husterhoeh Kaserne Depot, Pirmasens, Germany, and at Camp Carroll, South Korea, for consolidation overseas before going to the JMC facility for further consolidation. These regional facilities provide secure storage areas operated by personnel trained in radiation safety and handling and shipping of radioactive materials.

About once a year, JMC makes a bulk shipment from the Rock Island Arsenal facility out of the dozens of small shipments received the previous year. The most recent shipment was completed in December 2013.

The JMC health physicists and contractors sorted and segregated items according to their disposition path, then dismantled items to reduce volume to the radioactive component, and packed them for shipment. Non-radioactive item carcasses were recycled through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office.

In order to handle the consolidated articles according to safety requirements, JMC's employees and contracted personnel donned protective clothing, masks and gloves and packed the items in two heavy-gauge metal containers. Each container measured four-by four by six feet and held 96 cubic feet of material. The lids, themselves, of each container weighed 250 pounds and were fastened to the containers with heavy-duty bolts and sealed with a gasket.

Even with significant volume reduction, the total shipment ended up weighing 3.2 tons. To minimize the cost of disposition, each container went to the best value site for its contents. This kind of savings allows for disposal of more materials and eliminates backlogs at installations.

One area with a significant reduction in materials for disposal is the southwest Asia theater. Through its rapid response Army Contaminated Equipment Retrograde Team, the Safety/Rad Waste Directorate supported units from 2003 to 2011, by operating a consolidation facility in Kuwait and shipping radioactive items back to the U.S. for disposal. With the drawdown, that path has shrunken considerably.

"These days we are not seeing as much excessed radioactive items coming out of Afghanistan as we saw coming out of Iraq via Kuwait," said Mike Kurth, JMC consolidation facility radiation safety officer. "Units are returning to the U.S. and turning the items in here versus in southwest Asia. Also, we are seeing less because the Army is phasing out use of equipment containing radioactive materials in favor of non-radioactive versions."

Since 1992, JMC has successfully provided safe, compliant, and cost-effective radioactive and mixed-waste disposal services to all DOD services as well as many other federal agencies, and it plans to continue its mission as long as it is needed into the future.

From its headquarters at Rock Island Arsenal, JMC operates a nationwide network of conventional ammunition manufacturing plants and storage depots, and provides on-site ammunition experts to U.S. combat units wherever they are stationed or deployed. JMC's customers are U.S. forces of all military services, other U.S. government agencies and allied nations.