Plutonium is forever
By LeRoy Moore and Robert Del Tredici
BOULDER DAILY CAMERA
January 29, 2012
Whether to build the Jefferson Parkway or to turn Rocky Flats near Denver into a playground, the determining factor should not be commercial or residential development. The determining factor should be hot particles of plutonium.
A hot particle of plutonium is one that can lodge in air sacs of a lung or be moved via blood elsewhere in the organism. Wherever it resides in the body it irradiates surrounding tissue. A single particle of plutonium can damage more than 10,000 cells within its range.
Nobel chemist Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium in 1941, called it “fiendishly toxic, even in small amounts.” Physicist Jeremy Bernstein recently declared plutonium “the world’s most dangerous element.”
In 2004, well before U.S. Fish and Wildlife received most of the site of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory to manage as a wildlife refuge, it decided to open the future refuge for public recreation. Never mind that 81 percent of parties commenting on the plan rejected public access. In December the agency made a second decision, to allow construction of the Jefferson Parkway along the plutonium-contaminated eastern edge of Rocky Flats.
Implementing the highway decision has been delayed, perhaps stopped, by lawsuits brought by the towns of Superior and Golden. It’s a safe bet that if the parkway or playground decisions are implemented, future generations will curse us for it. For people will inevitably arrive at an understanding of plutonium dangers that today is not yet broadly shared.
Those promoting the parkway and playground are ill informed about the long-term hazards of plutonium. Federal and state agencies backing these projects base their support on assurances of a nuclear establishment intent on perpetuating itself.
The blindness regarding plutonium on the part of otherwise savvy people is reminiscent of attitudes toward germs in the early 19th century. Some few realized that invisible entities called germs existed and could cause deadly diseases, but many scoffed. By the end of the century, however, the reality of germs and their relation to disease had become common knowledge.
Plutonium particles in the soil at Rocky Flats will one way or another, sooner or later, come into people’s lungs and lives, since, with a half-life of 24,000 years, it poses a radiation hazard essentially forever. Minute particles much smaller than germs get brought to the surface by burrowing animals, incautious humans, turbulent geology and extreme weather. Such particles can be carried near and far by the wind and inhaled by unsuspecting people, including children, the most vulnerable. Once inside the body, plutonium does its damage.
The late Edward Martell, NCAR radiochemist, pointed out as early as 1970 that the radioactivity from plutonium dust particles at Rocky Flats is “millions of times more intense than that from naturally occurring radioactive dust particles (uranium) of the same size. Minute amounts . . . are sufficient to cause cancer.”
Martell maintained that standards for permissible exposure to plutonium are at least 200 times too lenient. He called for the appointment of independent researchers to develop far more stringent standards. This has yet to happen. When in 1983 he heard that antinuclear activists planned to encircle Rocky Flats, he warned: No children or women of childbearing age should go near the place.
By now much is known about plutonium, though some uncertainty persists. In 2008 the National Academy of Sciences faulted the EPA for how it handles scientific uncertainty. Too often it treats uncertainty as indicating the absence of a problem rather than the presence of a problem needing deeper study. Those who completed the Superfund cleanup of Rocky Flats in 2005 acknowledged leaving behind an unknown quantity of plutonium. Without referring to the enormous uncertainties this entailed, government agencies declared the site safe. And they have opposed efforts to have signs posted warning people that visiting the wildlife refuge may be hazardous. For them, is an informed public more dangerous than plutonium itself?
Several countries, especially in Europe, apply the Precautionary Principle to potentially harmful environmental issues. The Precautionary Principle holds that if a proposed action poses a possible risk, the appropriate response is to step back and not take that risk. Caution should prevail over carelessness.
The official response to plutonium in the soil at Rocky Flats has so far been one of carelessness rather than caution. But it is not too late to let caution be our guide. We recognized some time ago that we could not afford to ignore germs. Later we saw that we must avoid asbestos particles at all costs. And rather recently we have learned to shun second-hand smoke. It is now high time for us to realize that nobody needs parkways or playgrounds on land contaminated with unknown quantities of hot plutonium particles.
LeRoy Moore, a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center of Boulder, has focused on the now defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant since 1979. Robert Del Tredici, a resident of Montreal, is the foremost photographer of the nuclear age. They can be contacted by email at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and <email@example.com>.
LeRoy Moore at the southeast corner of the Rocky Flats site on a windy day, June 17, 2011. The route of the proposed Jefferson Parkway traverses the area where he stands. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is immediately behind him. Photo by Robert Del Tredici.