One of the current controversies regarding Rocky Flats is the development of a very large residential-commercial community called Candelas across the whole length of the southern edge of the Rocky Flats site. See the following for an excellent well documented article on Candelas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candelas_%28Master_Planned_Community%29,_Arvada,_CO
Archive for the ‘Wildlife Refuge’ Category
Published in the Boulder Daily Camera, 1-26-14
A December 28 Camera article suggests that the proposed Jefferson Parkway is moving ahead. This toll road would add about ten miles to C-470, almost completing the loop around Denver. Some call it the “plutonium parkway,” because it would be built on the contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site, where for four decades the explosive plutonium pits for nuclear warheads were made.
Plutonium released from Rocky Flats is present in soil on and off the plant site in the form of particles too small to see but not too small to do harm. Plutonium emits a type of radiation that cannot penetrate skin but that may wreck one’s health if it is inhaled or otherwise taken into the body. Lodged in the body, it continually irradiates surrounding cells, probably for the rest of one’s life. The result may be cancer or other ailments, including harm to offspring. Because it remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years, it poses an essentially permanent danger.
In 1970 P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy, scientists with the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Department of Energy), sampled soil on and off the Rocky Flats site to a depth of 8 inches and analyzed it for its plutonium content. The heaviest concentrations were in soil along the eastern edge of the site in the area now intended for construction of the highway. In September 2011 Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. collected soil samples along Indiana St. precisely where the proposed road would be built. He found plutonium concentrations roughly equivalent to what Krey and Hardy found in 1970.
Sampling done as part of the Rocky Flats cleanup on what is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge showed only a scant presence of plutonium near where the highway would be built. But these samples were collected in shallow surface soil, not at the deeper levels analyzed by Krey and Hardy.
Building the road would affect the environment. In 2004 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service performed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to create the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. But this EIS did not analyze the effect of construction of a highway in an area known to be contaminated with plutonium. Fish and Wildlife nevertheless provided land for the road.
The Camera article says proponents of the highway “cite a letter written by officials with the EPA and the Colorado health department in late 2011 stating that the risk of excessive cancer incidence for people who work at the refuge is below standards set by the state” and the federal government. This letter is meaningless, because there’s a latency period of 20 to 30 years before plutonium taken into the body produces cancer. Not until refuge workers have been at the site without interruption for at least this long will we have a better sense of the incidence of cancer among them.
People who live or work near the Rocky Flats site or who visit there may be unwittingly exposed to plutonium left in soil by those responsible for the ten-year Superfund cleanup completed in 2005. They made no effort to clean the site to the maximum extent possible with existing technology. Assuming incorrectly that plutonium left behind would remain in place, they willingly allowed an unknown quantity of plutonium to remain in the soil, with no limit on the amount allowed below six feet.
Plutonium particles brought to the surface by burrowing animals will be carried hither and yon by wind. They can be readily inhaled. The result decades later may be cancer or some other illness. Children are without question the most vulnerable. There is no certainty that any of us will be exposed or will become ill. But it is a definite risk. The inadequate cleanup done at Rocky Flats gambles with peoples’ lives. Constructing the Jefferson Parkway would up the ante on the gamble. The wise move is to avoid the site and to abandon the highway.
LeRoy Moore, PhD, is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. For more on Rocky Flats, see www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org
From a message sent 0n Sunday Jan. 5, 2014, by Michelle Gabrioloff-Parish, a member of Candelas Glows..
Outrageous New Icon for Rocky Flats
A local artist has decided to match the outrageous, radioactive history of Rocky Flats with a large, surprising work of art. Looking at Colorado’s newest historical horse sculpture conjures up images of the well know conversation-starting Bronco icon at Denver International Airport. It’s just as bright and confusing with a touch of disturbing, but it seems to have a much sweeter soul—which speaks to the “Wildlife Refuge” designation of Rocky Flats. It’s sure to leave viewers with more questions than answers. The life-size horse is wearing a magenta hazmatmsuit with black booties. A respirator partially covers a beautiful realistic face with thoughtful eyes.
The artist, Jeff Gipe has been interested in issues surrounding Rocky Flats for quite some time and was relieved when a local group, Candelas Glows, began raising alarms about new housing developments being built adjacent to the former nuclear weapons plant. But Jeff has a much more personal reason that he’s spent thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and lots of sweat and tears making his horse creation come to life. Jeff’s father worked at the plant for 20 years and like many of his co-workers, now suffers devastating physical effects of working at one of the world’s most notoriously polluted plutonium processing sites. In talking with members of Candelas Glows, Jeff became intrigued with the idea of memorializing the site.
Along with Candelas Glows and many community members, Gipe is concerned that Rocky Flats’ history is being ignored and that because of it, more people will be harmed. Located in a pristine-looking and beautiful part of the Front Range, the contaminated history of Rocky Flats is invisible: the radioactive accidents, the midnight plutonium incinerations, the corroded storage tanks, the sealed court documents, the historical FBI raid and the 28,400 lbs of plutonium waste buried there. “It’s up to people who know the history of the site, and artists,” says Gipe, “to make the invisible visible. To keep memory and even respect for the history of a critical Cold War site alive.” The horse may be shocking, but nothing compared to the controversial and sometimes shocking history it is trying to invoke. And its timing is perfect.
After the September floods, activists and scientists are concerned that some of the waste buried at Rocky Flats may have risen to the surface and/or further contaminated groundwater. And in the last week of 2013, a land swap was completed which is considered to be a critical ingredient of the toll road proposed on the infamous site. The 400-600 lb horse is lining up a couple of appearances, but is looking for a more permanent home. Gipe’s hope is that it be placed on Rocky Flats or land facing it to begin to memorialize the site and bring attention to its tumultuous and sure to be long-lasting history. For more, check out the Candelas Glows website or Facebook page for more or email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
To see photos, of the horse, leave a message for me and I’ll send them to you.
A friend recently suggested planting mushrooms at Rocky Flats. She said they will absorb and neutralize the radiation in the environment at that site.
This claim has been around for years. It has resurfaced recently in part due to an article entitled “How Mushrooms Can Save the Planet,” published in the July-August DISCOVER magazine. The article is about Paul Stamets who says “fungi can clean up everything from oil spills to nuclear meltdowns.”
Stamets statement is partially correct but unfortunately not absolutely so.
I asked members of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability about mushrooms and radiation. Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, located in the DC area, replied: “The mushrooms can absorb certain radioactive isotopes at a high rate. But then the mushrooms’ flesh becomes highly radioactive. The mushrooms are not able to eradicate the radioactivity.”
He adds: “This has become tragic in the Chernobyl region, as the surrounding Slavic cultures treasure edible mushrooms as a delicacy.”
What Kevin didn’t say is that the mushrooms themselves become radioactive waste. That is, they become part of the problem. It’s an old story with radioactivity. It can’t be seen, tasted, smelled, heard or felt. But some of it, especially the plutonium at Rocky Flats, will be around for a very long time, and everything it touches becomes radioactive.
See the previous entry in this blog for a Boulder Weekly article about plutonium and the recent flood. This brief letter to the author of that article responds to a quoted erroneous statement made by the current manager of the DOE portion of the Rocky Flats site.
Your recent Boulder Weekly article, “Flood Raises Questions at Rocky Flats,” says Scott Surovchak, the Manager of the DOE portion of the Rocky Flats site, disputes claims Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. made in a report in early 2012 giving results of soil sampling he had done for the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center on the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats site along Indiana St. Kaltofen reported that according to his work the plutonium levels in this area were just as high in 2012 as they were 40 years earlier before any cleanup activity had happened at Rocky Flats. He suggested that water leaving the site as a result of the September flood was quite possibly contaminated with small quantities of plutonium. Surovchak disputed this claim, saying (according to your article) that Kaltofen’s sampling “was done with an optical rather than radiological analysis and was therefore inappropriate for determining the true levels of plutonium in surface soil.” Kaltofen responded: “The plutonium was determined by both electron backscatter and gamma spectroscopy. Both are standard methods. Neither is an optical method.”
Clearly, DOE Manager Surovchak either doesn’t know what he is talking about, or he is deliberately demeaning an experienced soil sampler. Neither enables the public to trust what a DOE official says.
Boulder Weekly, Thursday, October 10,2013
FLOOD RAISES QUESTIONS AT ROCKY FLATS
Like the rest of the region, the rain started soaking into the ground at Rocky Flats on Monday, Sept. 9. By the following Wednesday night, the ground was fully saturated and the flooding began in earnest, with runoff from the hills, gullies and holding ponds at the site, filling North and South Walnut Creeks as well as Woman Creek beyond their capacities.
As the water finally began to recede, the debris caught in the fences above the usual creek banks bore witness to the unprecedented water levels that had swept through the area between Wednesday night and Saturday morning.
The water washing across the four square miles of land at Rocky Flats had raced down the creeks and dry washes and off the property towards the lakes and housing additions to the east, closing Indiana Avenue and raising concerns and more than a few questions.
Was there contamination in the floodwater and, if so, what kind and at what levels? And is the threat of contamination spreading due to the rains now over?
At least some of the answers to these questions will likely come sometime around Oct. 11, when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) estimates that it will get back test results from two labs that examined samples from the 10 surface-water monitoring stations at the Flats, most of which are located along the Walnut and Woman creeks. But will these test results answer all the questions being raised? Considering the long history of Rocky Flats and the ongoing, 30-plus years of controversy surrounding its contamination and cleanup, it seems unlikely.
Rocky Flats is a former nuclear weapons production facility just south of Boulder that operated from 1952 to 1992.
At one time, prior to its closure and remediation, the former plant and the lands surrounding it were considered one of the most contaminated places in the world. The area’s ground and surface waters are still being monitored today for radiation, and there are measurable levels of plutonium, Americium and uranium in some locations at the site that exceed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.
Other contaminants at the Flats include PCBs and carcinogenic BTEX contaminants, named for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
In addition, groundwater recovery systems designed to capture uranium and nitrate contamination that has leaked into groundwater are in place to strip out the contamination before allowing the groundwater to be released into the area’s creeks and lakes.
And finally, critics of the government’s remediation of Rocky Flats, including the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, claim that plutonium contamination well above normal background levels can still be found in the surface soils at Rocky Flats in widespread locations across the area, including, according to tests commissioned by RMPJ in 2012, outside the site’s eastern boundary along Indiana Avenue, where a privately funded toll road, the Jefferson Parkway, has been proposed for construction.
The following is an overview of what is known to have occurred at Rocky Flats due to the flooding, concerns about what may have occurred, and possible future problems that could arise as a result of the September floods.
* * * *
Shortly after the flood, several news outlets, including Denver television station Fox 31, reported that a cap covering a landfill at Rocky Flats had cracked due to the flooding and that emergency repairs were under way even as the rain was falling. No further details were offered.
Rocky Flats in 2007, after cleanup. | Photo courtesy of the EPA
The station, aided by Dr. Jeffrey King of the Colorado School of Mines, later tested for radiation along the creeks where the water coming from the Flats had passed and reported that nothing alarming was found.
As for the cracked landfill cap, there are two former landfills at Rocky Flats. One is known as the original landfill (OLF) and the other is referred to as the present landfill (PLF).
According to Carl Spreng, Rocky Flats coordinator for the CDPHE, both of the landfills are capped, but with differing types of caps for different purposes.
The PLF cap is a combination of clay and waterproofing materials designed to prevent rainwater from infiltrating the landfill beneath the cap, an outcome that would likely cause groundwater contamination that could spread from the PLF, eventually making its way into area surface waters.
The primary contaminant of concern in the PLF, according to Spreng, is benzene, one of the BTEX compounds. As a result, a waterproof cap is needed because BTEX contaminants are easily transported long distances in groundwater. Spreng says that no plutonium or other radioactive contaminants are in the PLF, and that the cap on the PLF was not the one breached during the flood.
The top of the OLF is what actually cracked. Although news reports referred to a “cap on a landfill,” what actually cracked was not a cap but the cover over the OLF, which is made of earth. According to the Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats Site Manager Scott Surouchak, “cap” is a term describing a federally required waterproof covering under the RCRA laws such as the one over the PLF. He says that the dirt top over the OLF predates the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and can only be referred to as a “cover.”
Spreng says the OLF cover is made of dirt and was not designed to be waterproof. The primary contaminants of concern in the OLF are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are not easily soluble in water and tend to cling to soil. They can migrate, however, in water along with soil that is being swept away. They are also easily re-emitted to the air and can travel long distances before settling or being driven down by rain, according to the EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
This explains the need to quickly repair the OLF cover following the flood. Spreng says that the OLF cover will likely be re-engineered in coming weeks because it was already sagging in some spots.
Surouchak says that the Department of Energy has no plans to test for potential PCB releases because the levels in the OLF years ago were already very low and looking for PCBs would be pointless.
Another potential, but by no means substantiated at this time, source of contamination resulting from the floods could be the release of sediments from the three remaining holding ponds at the Flats, which are located on North Walnut, South Walnut and Woman Creeks.
According to a 1996 technical report titled Characterization of Releases to Surface Water From the Rocky Flats Plant, in 1972-73 the three holding ponds were drained and reconstructed. During this draining process, the levels of radioactivity found in the creeks increased 80-fold as a result of sediment-heavy waters containing plutonium being released from the ponds to the creeks.
Plutonium is heavy and not particularly water-soluble, so it tends to collect in sediment at the bottoms of ponds and creeks, or in the sediment of the lakes where the creeks eventually deposit their waters.
This explains why there are still low levels of plutonium in the top 12 inches of sediment in both Stanley Lake, which receives water from Woman Creek, and Great Western Reservoir, which gets its water from the two Walnut Creeks. Neither reservoir has been used as a city water supply since the 1990s due to the discovery of contamination originating from Rocky Flats.
During the September floods, the water levels in the three current holding ponds rose extremely fast and approached overtopping the spillways but did not do so, according to Spreng.
“It reached up to the overflow but then drained off quickly without ever going over. But it doesn’t really matter, the water all goes to the same place anyway. It was drained off into the channels to the creeks where it is monitored,” he says.
The question of whether or not the rapid rise and equally quick draining of the holding ponds could have caused the release of sediments from the ponds and whether there was any contamination in that sediment could be answered by the upcoming release of the CDPHE’s creek monitoring results.
Surouchak says that while it’s certainly possible that plutonium in the pond sediments could have been released by floodwaters, he doesn’t believe that it is of much concern because the levels of plutonium in the sediment have been tested and are near or even below background levels. But the ponds are not the most likely area to have released plutonium into the watershed.
The easiest pathway for plutonium to have left the Rocky Flats site during the flood was simply by way of surface soils being washed away by the incredible amounts of rain that fell over the five-day period. That’s because, according to a recent test, plutonium levels on top of and in some of the soils at the Flats are just as prevalent today as they were decades ago.
In 2012, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, which has been monitoring the operation and cleanup at Rocky Flats for the past 30 years (see related story, page 15), commissioned a study to determine how much plutonium was still in the soil at the site.
Because they were not allowed to sample on the site itself, the samples were actually taken outside of the fence line on the east side of the Flats, along Indiana Avenue. According to RMPJ, the plutonium levels were just as high in 2012 as they were 40 years earlier, before Rocky Flats had ever been cleaned up.
If true, this would mean that nearly all of the water leaving Rocky Flats during the flood was quite possibly contaminated with small quantities of plutonium.
Surouchak disputes the claims of the 2012 RMPJ study, saying that it was done with an optical rather than radiological analysis and was therefore inapropriate for determining the true levels of plutonium in surface soil.
He does say that the rains left “two inches of sheet water just flowing across the prairie” during the floods.
But when it comes to measuring any contaminant in moving water, the more water that’s flowing, the more diluted the contamination becomes, and the less likely it is to be measured as it passes by a monitor. For that reason, it is quite likely that the CDPHE monitoring stations along the creeks, which saw unprecedented water flows, will find no increase in contamination at the time of the flood, even if the amount of contamination leaving the site had actually increased during the flood.
In fact, it’s quite possible that even the lone monitoring station that, for some still unexplained reason, frequently shows spikes in both plutonium and Americium levels in surface water may well show a decrease in contaminant levels during the flood event itself.
Because of the obvious, temporary dilution from flood waters, the time for accurate testing to determine if contamination was released is actually now, after the flood, under more normal conditions. If plutonium was being transported in floodwaters, the evidence of such movement could likely be found today in the area’s creek and lake sediments or even the drainage ditches along Indiana Avenue.
Surouchack says the DOE has no plans for any additional testing because the levels since the completion of the Cleanup have been so low.
Uranium is another issue at Rocky Flats. While plutonium is heavy and not likely to travel far in groundwater, uranium is the opposite. Uranium is quite soluble and is already contaminating groundwater at Rocky Flats, groundwater that has to be captured and cleaned by way of an expensive, ongoing remediation process.
There is no question that the long, lingering rains of September and the subsequent floods have caused a flushing of sorts in our groundwater aquifers. For that reason it is imperative that the groundwater uranium capture system at Rocky Flats should be rechecked to determine that groundwater pathways weren’t temporarily shifted during the rains and floods, allowing contaminants to bypass the system.
And finally, any massive infiltration of rain such as what occurred in September has the potential to drive old contamination to groundwater, whether it is by getting under caps/covers over pits and landfills or simply by leaching through long-ago-contaminated soil on its way to the underlying aquifer.
Considering that such groundwater normally only moves towards its eventual connection to surface water at a rate of a few feet per year at Rocky Flats, according to the CDPHE, some contamination resulting from September’s rains and floods may not show up in the groundwater and surface water monitoring systems at the site for quite some time.
What happened at Rocky Flats has been called a 1,000-year event. So it’s not likely that we will know or understand all of the implications of such an event for quite some time.
This article, by Arnie Heller, published in Science & Technology Review (October-November. 2011) , tells of the research led by Annie Kersting of the DOE Livermore National Lab on migration of plutonium attached to colloids in subsurface water. She says plutonium “travels underground faster and farther than anyone at first expected.” Her work is of great significance for Rocky Flats, where an unknown quantity of plutonium was knowingly left in the soil on the site after the Superfund cleanup. The cleanup was based on the assumption drawn from computer modeling that plutonium remaining in the Rocky Flats soil would not migrate. Kersting’s work counters this assumption.
|Livermore scientists are conducting field studies and microscopic experiments to determine how plutonium is transported in groundwater. Transmission electron microsope images such as the one shown above allowed the researchers to examine colloids taken from groundwater at the Nevada National Security Site (in the background). These studies and others have confirmed that colloids play an important role in transporting plutonium at contaminated sites worldwide.|
FOR decades Lawrence Livermore researchers have worked to obtain a detailed understanding of the actinides, a group of 14 radioactive elements that includes plutonium and uranium. The long-standing research is driven by the Laboratory’s historic roles in assessing the nation’s nuclear stockpile, ensuring the safe storage of nuclear waste, and evaluating the fate and transport of radionuclides in the environment.
Environmental contamination by radionuclides, particularly actinides, is a serious concern at several Department of Energy (DOE) facilities, including the Hanford Site, the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site), and the former Rocky Flats Plant, as well as at a number of contaminated sites worldwide. Although concentrations of most of the actinides transported from the original source location are detected at levels below regulatory dose limits, actinides’ long half-lives combined with their high toxicity make them of particular concern.
A five-year experimental effort involving about a dozen Laboratory scientists and their collaborators is examining the geochemical processes that control plutonium’s sometimes baffling behavior in the ground. The researchers’ goal is to gain sufficient understanding of the processes that control plutonium’s behavior so they can more accurately predict long-term transport.
“We want to provide decision makers with the scientific basis to support plans for the remediation and long-term stewardship of legacy sites where plutonium contamination occurred,” says Livermore geochemist Annie Kersting, leader of the plutonium transport effort and director of the Livermore branch of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for actinide research. Other Livermore researchers include lead scientist Mavrik Zavarin, Susan Carroll, Zurong Dai, Ross Williams, Scott Tumey, Pihong Zhao, Ruth Tinnacher, Patrick Huang, Harris Mason, James Begg, and Ruth Kips. Collaborators include Brian Powell (a former Livermore postdoctoral researcher) from Clemson University in South Carolina and Duane Moser from Desert Research Institute in Nevada. The group’s research is funded by the DOE Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research Program.
Plutonium Is a Perplexing Element
Scientists regard plutonium as one of the most complex and perplexing elements in the entire periodic table. For example, its transport in groundwater strongly depends on its oxidation state, and plutonium is one of the few elements that can exist in four unique oxidation states simultaneously. Plutonium has been shown to migrate while associated with small (less than 1 micrometer in diameter) particles, or colloids. It may also migrate while associated with mobile organic matter.
For many years, scientists had assumed that plutonium, because of its low solubility in water and its strong tendency to sorb (adhere) to soil and rocks, does not migrate. However, in 1999, Kersting and colleagues from Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories detected plutonium in groundwater at the Nevada Site. Isotopic signatures showed that it originated from a specific nuclear test conducted years earlier more than 1.4 kilometers away. The team found that the plutonium was associated with colloids in the groundwater. Since 1999, additional studies by this team and fieldwork by other scientists have confirmed that colloids play an important role in transporting plutonium at a number of other contaminated sites around the world.
Past laboratory experiments aimed at understanding how plutonium moves in the subsurface were performed at concentrations higher than those observed in the field. However, the dominant geochemical processes operating at higher concentrations may not be the same as those that occur in nature at much lower concentrations. New analytical tools developed at Livermore are providing an opportunity to conduct experiments at the much lower concentrations measured in nature. The extremely sensitive instruments allow researchers for the first time to mimic environmental conditions. Much of the Livermore team’s focus is on determining how plutonium hitches a ride on colloids. These microscopic colloidal particles are found in all waters and can be composed of organic material, inorganic minerals (for example, clays), or microbes.
Kersting says it is important to capture processes such as colloidal transport of contaminants so that models can accurately estimate how much, how far, and how fast plutonium can travel. “Colloidal transport was originally not considered in most transport models. Now, researchers are trying to understand when colloids are important in transport and when they are not,” she says. Currently, a basic understanding of how plutonium adheres to mineral colloids (and desorbs from them) is lacking. In particular, transport models suggest that the rates of sorption and desorption control colloid-facilitated actinide transport, but the factors affecting reaction rates have not been determined experimentally.
Sensitive Instruments Provide Unique Opportunity
Livermore instruments allow researchers to conduct experiments involving extraordinarily low (but environmentally realistic) levels of plutonium in the femtomolar to attomolar range (10–15 to 10–18 moles per liter, with a 10–18 concentration of plutonium being roughly equivalent to dissolving one grain of salt in 100 Olympic-size swimming pools). Instruments include the accelerator mass spectrometer at the Laboratory’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and the newest generation of inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometers. With these extremely sensitive instruments, researchers can identify where the plutonium is sited on a microscopic colloid, determine how it was deposited on the colloid, and elucidate the geochemical processes controlling its mobility.
Plutonium-containing colloids are being characterized in terms of their inorganic, organic, and microbial associations by using a transmission electron microscope and a nanometer-scale secondary-ion mass spectrometer. The Livermore experiments entail reacting extremely low concentrations of plutonium with different materials such as mineral colloids, organic matter, and microbes, and determining to what extent changing parameters, such as pH and concentration, affect the interaction of plutonium with these substrates.
“The experiments show that each mineral colloid interacts with plutonium in a unique manner,” says Zavarin. For example, one form of plutonium, nanocrystalline plutonium-4–oxygen-7 (Pu4O7), readily precipitates on goethite, an iron oxide and a common constituent of soil. The team is examining the surface deposition of(Pu4O7 to determine why plutonium molecules bind so tightly to goethite. The research indicates that plutonium surface precipitates become distorted as they are deposited, which apparently strengthens the bond between goethite and plutonium. In contrast, this process does not occur when plutonium interacts with quartz (silica dioxide), one of the many silicates found in soil.
The experimental results are being compared to samples taken from contaminated sites at Nevada, Rocky Flats, Hanford, and Russia’s Mayak nuclear complex. Kersting notes that colloids may not play a major transport role at all sites and that the depositional geology and hydrology affect transport. “We’re slowly filling in the scientific gaps,” she says.
One undetermined factor is how microbes affect plutonium transport. Desert Research Institute scientists have collected microbes at the Nevada Site colocated with plutonium contamination, identified and cultured the microbes, and shipped them to Livermore for studying the interaction between plutonium and microbial communities.
|Collaborator Duane Moser from the Desert Research Institute collects groundwater containing plutonium from the Nevada Site.|
|A scanning electron microscope image shows colloidal particles produced during the reaction of nuclear melt glass in groundwater at the Nevada Site.|
Leveraging Research Results
Zavarin notes that other actinides are present at contamination sites, and the team’s research results may also shed light on how these elements are transported. “We want to apply our resources to other actinides such as neptunium, americium, and uranium,” he says. The research is also applicable for European scientists and decision makers who are planning the construction of facilities to store high-level waste from nuclear power plants. Kersting’s team is collaborating with several international scientists in this effort.
An added benefit of the Livermore research is the opportunity for a new generation of actinide scientists to work with plutonium. Several postdoctoral researchers and summer graduate students are contributing to the research, with some participating in the Seaborg Institute’s Nuclear Forensics Summer Internship Program, funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to the research, the most perplexing element on the periodic table is slowly losing some of its mystery about how it travels underground faster and farther than anyone at first expected.
Key Words: actinide, Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, Hanford Site, Mayak nuclear complex, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada Test Site, nuclear forensics, plutonium, Rocky Flats Plant.
For further information contact Annie Kersting (925) 423-3338 (email@example.com).
See http://www.theboulderstand.org/2013/07/16/hot-particle-politics-on-the-rocky-flats-highway/ for an exceptionally good article on the proposed Jefferson Parkway. If built, it will run along the eastern, most contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site.
Several times a year I hear from people who wonder if it’s wise to live near Rocky Flats. The most extensive exchange I have had on this topic was with a woman who about a year before writing to me had moved with her husband and daughter into a new house near Rocky Flats and only recently had learned of possible dangers of living in the area. Because of the searching quality of her questions, I asked her if I could share our correspondence with others, provided I did not use her name or identify the precise location of the house she and her family occupied. She agreed. What follows, therefore, is a verbatim copy of our correspondence, without use of her name or other identifying words.
Dear Dr. Moore,
About a year ago we moved to Whisper Creek, a new development located between Indiana and Alkire around 87th Pkwy in Arvada. There is constant development in the area, and it seems that there will be for quite some time with plans for more development just west of us on Candelas Pkwy. We just recently began to research Rocky Flats and the potential risks it poses. We have a 2.5 year old, and are expecting a second child in a few weeks. We’re concerned having read several of your articles and papers. Based on what we have read, we understand that there is plutonium in the soil. What we are unclear about is how much plutonium we are actually being exposed to. Is this area so unsafe that we should consider moving? Is there a safe distance from Rocky Flats? Would we be exposed to plutonium anywhere in this larger area? What are the boundaries that you would not consider living within? We love it here and do not want to move. At the same time we clearly do not want to put our family in harm’s way. We’re trying to determine how big of a factor this is. Most importantly, is the risk of the amount of plutonium that we are being exposed to so significantly greater than other harmful substances, such as pesticides, BPA, and other such contaminants? Finally, would our situation change if the Jefferson Parkway is constructed as proposed?
Thank you for your time and expertise,
Concerned Person (CP)
I write in response to your message. I do not envy you and your family the dilemma you face.
Below is a map produced by Atomic Energy Commission scientists P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy in 1970 showing areas on and off the Rocky Flats site contaminated with plutonium. As you can see from this map, the area where you purchased a home is in what they showed to be the more highly contaminated area. In September 2011 Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. collected soil samples on the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats site along the route of the proposed Jefferson Parkway. Analysis of his samples showed that the plutonium present in this area in September 2011 was roughly equivalent to the amount found there by Krey and Hardy in 1970. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that after 24,000 years the radioactivity emitted by the material will have declined by half, after another 24,000 years by another half, and so on. Thus, from a human perspective, any quantity of plutonium in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger. The plutonium released from Rocky Flats is in the form of minute particles too small to see but not too small to do harm. Inhalation of such particles is the worst way to be exposed to the alpha radiation that it emits. If particles lodge within the body, for as long as they remain there, which is likely to be for the remainder of one’s life, the plutonium continually irradiates surrounding tissue. The result 20 or 30 years later may be cancer, harm to one’s immune system, or genetic damage that may be passed on to future generations.
If the government agencies responsible for public health vis-à-vis Rocky Flats took a precautionary approach, they would not allow new residential developments in the area shown by Krey and Hardy to be contaminated with plutonium, nor would they allow construction of the proposed Jefferson Parkway, nor would they allow public access to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans. Unfortunately, most government entities related to Rocky Flats take what I believe is an incautious approach, one that takes unnecessary risks with human life.
Were I in your position, I would not want to raise a family in the area where you have purchased a home. I would seek a home elsewhere, well outside the area shown by Krey and Hardy to be contaminated.
Perhaps you have heard of the recently published book entitled FULL BODY BURDEN: GROWING UP IN THE NUCLEAR SHADOW OF ROCKY FLATS, by Kristen Iversen. She describes in a vivid way what it was like to grow up near Standley Lake during the production years at Rocky Flats and how she only gradually learned about dangers posed by the facility. I think you might find the book helpful. It was reviewed in the New York Times on Friday, on line at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/books/book-review-full-body-burden-by-kristen-iversen.html?_r=0
I hope you find this message helpful. I’m curious how you learned about my writings and how to contact me. Let me know if you have questions or if there’s more that I can do to be helpful.
Dear LeRoy Moore,
Thank you very much for your prompt, thorough, and thoughtful response. As I mentioned before, we are due with another baby in a few weeks, so are not making any life changing decisions within the next couple months. Knowing what we know, it seems that the chance of remaining healthy is greater than that of getting sick. But the potential risks are so severe that we could not justify living here long-term. We will revisit the topic in January and see what we feel is right for our family.
I found your articles and papers by googling “Is Rocky Flats Safe,” and read on from there. We found your writing to be very accessible and unbiased. Your email address was listed in this article: <http://denverdirect.blogspot.com/2012/02/citizens-seek-sampling-of-air-for.html>. So if you don’t want future people contacting your from out of the blue, you may want to have that access limited. My husband and I deeply appreciate the work that you are doing, and feel lucky that you have done work to get the word out about the potential dangers that this area poses. I appreciate your offer to answer any future questions. I just may take you up on that in the upcoming months.
Thanks again for your time and thoughtfulness,
Thank you for this message.
My question about how you learned about my writings and came to contact me was simply one of curiosity. I am not at all opposed to having people contact me, in fact am pleased when it happens.
I understand the difficulty of the decisions you face about your place of residence and certainly wish you well as you deliberate and decide what to do. If I can be of any further help, let me know.
Dear LeRoy Moore,
I do have one more question for you. A friend of mine said I need to pick my battles, and that there is really no safe utopia that I will be able to take my family to regarding toxins, drugs, sex-offenders, traffic accidents, poor schools, bad influences, etc. She’s right, of course, and I’m trying to figure out how much weight to put on the potential risks from plutonium exposure. I imagine an expert on BPA would say to avoid it all costs, an expert on pesticides would say to consume only organic produce, and an expert on Oxybenzone would say to never purchase a sunscreen with the chemical in it. So is plutonium among those risks – just one of many harmful substances that we’d all be healthier without, or is it in a class of its own and should truly be avoided at all costs? Would avoiding plutonium be just one of many things that we should be doing, or is this potentially another Erin Brockovich situation where these dangers far outweigh those from other toxins?
Thanks again for your time. I know my anxiety is heightened being pregnant, and you have been such a concrete help as we wade through all of this information.
I appreciate your searching questions. Your friend raises a good point. Why bother about one problem when there are dozens more that call out for attention? Or why select this problem rather than another? How does one choose? There certainly is no safe utopia in our polluting, contentious industrial civilization. Here’s an effort at a response.
The period we live in since 1945 isn’t called the “nuclear age” for nothing. Beginning with the splitting of the atom and the use of this ability to produce weapons of mass destruction (nothing else like them, really), we entered a new era. Humans have always lived in a radioactive environment. The late Edward Martell, a radiochemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and the foremost student of radiation health effects in this part of the country, emphasized that humankind had evolved in a radiation-rich environment. He thought radioactivity was probably a spur to our evolution. He realized that the naturally occurring radioactivity in the midst of which we humans have always spent our lives will harm some individuals, even kill some. So he thought adding more radioactivity to the already existing burden of natural background radiation should be avoided insofar as possible.
Martell bemoaned the fact that atmospheric detonations of nuclear weapons had altered the environment globally by increasing the amount of radiation to which everyone everywhere is exposed. As a result, there is increased illness and death worldwide. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel prize winning physicist often referred to as the father of the Soviet H-bomb, reached a similar conclusion. His rejection of nuclear weapons and publicizing the potential harm of further bomb testing helped bring about the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that outlawed atmospheric explosion of nuclear devices, while it also got him decades of house arrest. The crucial point is that in terms of radioactivity we no longer live in a context of naturally occurring radiation. We all are exposed to more radioactivity than our pre-1945 forebears were.
Rocky Flats fits into this context as a site where carelessness prevailed over caution. This is true not only for the years of production at the plant, when releases of plutonium and other toxins were part of the routine, but also after production ended when the government decided not to do what many in the public recommended, namely, clean the site to the maximum extent possible with existing technology. Instead, they decided to do a faster, cheaper cleanup, one that would leave an unknown quantity of minute plutonium particles and other toxins in the environment. This means that in addition to the worldwide increase in radiation exposure due to atmospheric explosions, people locally will continue to be adversely affected by Rocky Flats. And, as I emphasized earlier, this isn’t a temporary reality; it’s a permanent one.
The radioactive particles which might be stirred up in the environment and made airborne will be too small to see. If particles are inhaled, the doses to which one might be exposed will be small. They may prove harmless. But if they lodge in the body they may prove harmful. This is the gamble. If you ask officials from the EPA, the Colo. Dept. of Public Health and Environment, or the Department of Energy, they will tell you there is no reason for concern. I disagree for a host of reasons that are detailed in writings on our web site (www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org). In my view, they have made public health decisions based on an outmoded science geared more to keeping an industry going than to fullest possible protection to public health and environmental integrity.
Finally, if you look on our web site at the long piece on “Plutonium and People Don’t Mix,” on p. 17 of the version now posted (we’ll soon post an updated, somewhat longer version) you’ll find a statement about the distinct vulnerability of a human child exposed to plutonium.
Our industrial civilization has produced an abundance of toxins. With the unleashing of radioactivity, we created a problem for which we so far lack a solution. Nuclear guardianship addresses the problem. See <http://www.joannamacy.net/nuclearguardianship/nuclear-guardianship-et>
Hello again, LeRoy,
Thank you for your response. I have two additional points that I am seeking your opinion about. First, I think I know your overall conclusion, but I don’t want to risk misinterpreting as we face potentially life-changing choices. To clarify, you acknowledge that there are many contaminants and toxins no matter where we live, and you still think that plutonium poses a much larger risk than all others, correct? Enough of a risk that you recommend that we move our family away from a house, neighborhood, and school district that we are very happy with in all other aspects?
Second, I came across a study that seems to conclude that there were not any statistically significant increases in cancer rates in our area from 1980-1989. Here’s a link to the study: http://www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite?blobcol=urldata&blobheadername1=Content-Disposition&blobheadername2=Content-Type&blobheadervalue1=inline%3B+filename%3D%22Ratios+of+cancer+incidence+in+ten+areas+around+Rocky+Flats.pdf%22&blobheadervalue2=application%2Fpdf&blobkey=id&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobwhere=1251811738408&ssbinary=true.
What do you make of this study? Do you know of any other studies that have similar or different results, whether in people or animals?
Any and all information and opinions you provide continue to be very helpful as we decide which course to take.
With much appreciation,
Your questions are always good ones, going right to a crucial point.
In response to your first question, several times each year I get asked by total strangers whether or not it’s safe to live near Rocky Flats. My answer is, first, to inform people that in 1970 scientists from the nuclear establishment — the Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor to the Dept of Energy — collected soil samples and produced maps that show areas off the Rocky Flats site contaminated with plutonium and that more recent sampling shows deposits along the eastern downwind edge of the Rocky Flats site roughly equivalent to what they were in 1970. I tell people, as I told you, that I personally would not choose to live in the contaminated area. I can’t make this decision for anyone else, can only say what I would do, given what is known about the adverse health effects that can result from exposure to plutonium taken into the body plus the fact that because of plutonium’s long half-life any quantity of this material in the environment poses an essentially permanent hazard. You and your family are in a particularly difficult situation, in that you have already purchased a home in an area shown by AEC scientists to be contaminated. Were I in your shoes I would want to relocate, especially for the sake of the children.
The question whether it is safe to live near Rocky Flats was most forcefully raised by Carl Johnson, MD. who from September 1973 until May 1981 was Director of the Health Department of Jefferson County, the county where Rocky Flats is located. The work of the AEC scientists P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy showed contaminated areas. The map I sent to you in response to your first message shows the results of their original sampling for plutonium on and near the Rocky Flats site. Krey later published another map, the purpose of which was to estimate the total inventory of plutonium released from Rocky Flats by determining via soil sampling where throughout the Denver metro area plutonium released from the plant had been deposited. This map, again using amoeba-like isopleths to show varying concentrations of contamination, showed that plutonium had been deposited east and southeast of the plant in a very large area extending as far as across almost the whole of the City of Denver. Carl Johnson wanted to go beyond showing areas of contamination to see if there was a relation between zones of contamination and cancer incidence in these zones. To make his own map he collected about three times as many soil samples as Krey had done. He divided the metro area into three contaminated zones shown again by amoeba-like isopleths, with Area I being closest to Rocky Flats, Area II extending into central Denver, Area III reaching to the far side of Denver and including suburban areas east of the plant and north of Denver. His Area IV was the surrounding non-contaminated zone. He then analyzed cancer incidence data for 1969-71 for these four zones. His Area I had 16% more cancer than the non-contaminated Area IV; Area II 10% more cancer than Area IV; and Area III 6% more cancer. He concluded that the cause of the increased incidence of cancer in Areas I-III was most likely the presence of plutonium in those three areas — a good example of what the legal profession refers to as “circumstantial evidence.” Clearly, Johnson’s answer to the question, is it safe to live near Rocky Flats, is NO. This particular work, only one of many Rocky Flats-related studies done by Johnson, was his best-known study. It was also by far the most controversial. By the time it was published in a prestigious technical journal in October 1981 he had been forced out of his job by real estate interests who had gained control of the Jefferson County Commissioners.
But Johnson had forcefully raised the question whether it’s a good idea to live near Rocky Flats. The Dept of Energy very quickly gave the task of refuting Johnson to one of its own scientists, K. S. Crump. When Crump replicated Johnson’s work he got the same results. He then abandoned Johnson’s isopleth approach in favor of dividing the Denver area into six equal pie-shaped parts centered on and radiating out from the State Capitol building in Denver. When he analyzed cancer incidence in each of these six areas, he concluded that cancer incidence in the area that included Rocky Flats was not appreciably different from other areas. But the one-sixth portion that included Rocky Flats also included the upwind non-contaminated City of Boulder; having the population of Boulder added in meant that Crump greatly diluted cancer incidence in this piece of the pie. Johnson showed Crump’s work for what it was, but the Dept. of Energy persisted in citing Crump as a genuine refutation of Johnson, and those eager to dismiss Johnson continued to cite Crump as well.
An example of citing Crump as a way of dismissing Johnson is the 1998 paper that you found on line. This paper, produced by the Colo. Dept of Public Health and Environment, makes the claim that those living near Rocky Flats have no higher incidence of cancer than people elsewhere in the metro area. But it, like Crump’s study, distorts reality by mixing populations exposed to plutonium with unexposed populations. German radiation specialist Bernd Franke criticized this paper as seriously flawed. “It appears,” he wrote, “that the study design was chosen to calm people down, for public relations purposes, rather than for any real scientific reason.” He made this comment in a letter dated December 2, 2002, sent to attorney Caron Balkany.
(FYI, Balkany is co-author with Wes McKinley of THE AMBUSHED GRAND JURY, a book that tells the story of the special grand jury convened to review evidence of environmental lawbreaking at Rocky Flats gathered when the FBI raided to plant in June 1989 specifically to collect such evidence. The thesis of this book is that the real purpose of the raid on Rocky Flats was not to expose environmental lawbreaking but to cover it up. Balkany’s co-author, Wes McKinley, was chair of the special grand jury that spent nearly three years reviewing evidence. When the Dept of Justice reached an out-of-court settlement with Rockwell Internatl., then the operator of the Rocky Flats plant, the company pled guilty to relatively minor charges and paid a fine. The documents reviewed by the grand jury were sealed in the Denver federal courthouse, and the grand jury was dismissed, despite the fact that the jurors wanted to indict and put on trial several Dept of Energy and Rockwell officials. McKinley and the other jurors are forbidden by law from revealing what they learned during their time reviewing evidence. Balkany and McKinley’s book is an effort to expose what happened.)
As is usual for your questions, I’m not able to give a simple answer. My answers are long and freighted with uncertainty and caution. But here I’ll stop on this one about living near Rocky Flats and will refer you to a recently published article that I wrote about the two independent scientists who contributed most regarding Rocky Flats to public awareness in the way of compassion and care, namely, Carl Johnson and Edward Martell. If you go on line to <http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org> and go to LeRoy Moore/Blog, then Papers by me, scroll down to “Democracy and Public Health at Rocky Flats.” This paper contains in the section on Carl Johnson a more detailed discussion than I’ve provided above on the question of living near Rocky Flats. One of the points made in this paper is that no actual health studies have ever been made on people that live in areas known to be contaminated with plutonium released from Rocky Flats. Johnson’s and a smaller one by Richard W. Clapp are the only epidemiological (that is, statistical) studies done on off-site populations. My article appeared earlier this year in a book called TORTURED SCIENCE: HEALTH STUDIES, ETHICS AND NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN THE UNITED STATES, edited by Dianne Quigley, Amy Lowman and Steve Wing.
I hope I’m not overwhelming you and yours with too much information. I honor your concerns and appreciate the fact that you are paying close attention to a matter that I believe needs close attention.
Hi again LeRoy,
Some time has passed since we last had contact and a lot has happened since then! We had a baby girl, and have been quite busy juggling her and our two year old. We have decided that we need to move our family away from the contaminated area. I still think about it several times a day, and that alone is enough motivation to move, as I cannot live with constant worry. We’re planning to put our house on the market in January. We’re sad to be leaving, but know that we can’t raise our kids here.
Thank you again for your thoughtful and thorough responses. I shared the information you provided with many people, including my sister, as you know. I wish I had known all of this before we bought our house and became involved in our community. I would like for the contamination to be more known in the public eye, though admittedly I hope that happens after we sell our house!
I am so incredibly appreciative of your time and responsiveness. The information and opinions you provided have played a huge role in our family, and we are moving to a safer place because of it.
Thank you for this note. I’m glad to hear from you. Congratulations on the new daughter. I know that with two so young your life has to be full.
I heard from your sister a couple of weeks ago and thought from what she said that you and your husband had decided not to remain so near Rocky Flats. I think this is a wise decision, better in the face of uncertainty to be cautious rather than careless. I wish government agencies responsible for Rocky Flats would adopt this approach.
You probably have seen the news that the Federal Appeals Court in Denver gave a green light last Friday for land to be transferred for the proposed Jefferson Parkway. If built, this privately financed toll highway will run along the downwind most contaminated side of the Rocky Flats. I hope we can prevent it from being built, since construction activity will stir up plutonium left in the soil, possibly endangering people who live nearby. From what I’ve seen, construction isn’t likely to begin fir two years.
The small group of people with whom I work on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship are engaged in activities to educate the public and make more people aware of the hazards posed by the contamination at Rocky Flats. I’d like to request your permission to copy verbatim the email exchange you and I had for use in educational efforts. I would not use your exact name or your email address or anything else that would identify you directly, including your address, which I don’t know anyway. A colleague has suggested printing the exchange as a pamphlet that could be made available to concerned people. As I said repeatedly to you, you asked very good questions, putting me to the test to answer them as honestly as possible without telling you what to do. Think about this request, and let me know.
Meanwhile, as we turn the calendar to the new year, I wish you and yours well.
We have officially sold our house! The people who bought it grew up in the area, so Rocky Flats should not be a curve ball for them. I know how much of a toll living there was taking on me psychologically, yet I’m still surprised at the deep relief I feel being out of the area. . . . Letting my two-year-old play in the dirt and snow has never been more refreshing.
Thank you again for your help and support.
Conclusion: In a later email I received the following message from CP:
I never told you this story, but while we were in the throws of all of this information gathering, I was talking on the phone to a friend about it all within earshot of my then 2.5 year old. When I hung up the phone she asked, “Mommy, what’s Rocky Flats?” I said it was an old factory. Then she said, “Oh, ok. What’s plutonium?” The very question brought tears to my eyes. At the absolute minimum, my children have a much happier mother now that I’m no longer worrying about the air they breathe!
In 1992 German social analyst Ulrich Beck offered a compelling critique of modern industrial society with his book Risk Society. As articulated by Beck, a “risk society” is one in which risks
- are readily produced by human action,
- are officially regarded as minor, and
- are widely accepted by those affected.
This seamless disregard for risk is mirrored in the behavior of the several government agencies that bear official responsibility for conditions at Rocky Flats. Now, whether they enable residential development on contaminated land near Rocky Flats, support opening the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the public or clear the way for construction of the proposed Jefferson Parkway along the eastern, most-contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site, they repeatedly tell the public:
a) that operations in the past at Rocky Flats contaminated the environment with plutonium and other toxins;
b) that the agencies responsible for public health regard present conditions on and off the site as “safe”; and
c) that the public has therefore no reason for worry.
Beck suggests that those of us who accept these assertions without question are in denial, and of course there are commercial interests ready to profit from the sense of denial endemic in our risk society.
Beck presents a strong alternative to this disregard for risk. I believe we should carefully consider what he and others in accord with his view have to say. To begin with, the risks to which he refers typically are posed by contaminants that cannot be seen, tasted or smelled. This kind of risk is a relatively new phenomenon; its nuclear form dates only from the 1940s. In the case of Rocky Flats, the principal contaminant is plutonium in the form of minute radioactive particles released into the environment from routine operations and accidents at the now defunct nuclear bomb factory during its production years from 1952 through 1989.
The distinctive feature of our modern “risk society” is that the risk is ecological. It damages and destroys the natural ecosystem to which humans and all other creatures belong and on which we depend for our very existence. The resultant damage doesn’t necessarily happen immediately; more seriously, it happens over the long-term.
Physicist Fritjof Capra of the University of California in Berkeley shows quite graphically that, because of the toxicity and 24,000-year half-life of plutonium 239 (used in abundance at Rocky Flats), it should be isolated from the environment for half-a-million years.
At Rocky Flats the plutonium was not isolated from the environment but was deposited in it. Further, because a secret deal had been made with Congress to put a ceiling on how much could be spent on the Superfund “cleanup” of the Rocky Flats site, those responsible for the job made no attempt to remove as much plutonium as possible with existing technology. Instead, they knowingly left behind an unknown quantity in the form of minute particles that can be inhaled, ingested or taken into the body through an open wound – the likeliest ways of being exposed to plutonium.
Plutonium emits alpha radiation. Unlike other forms of radiation, such as gamma rays and x-rays, alpha particles cannot penetrate skin, but when plutonium particles find their way into the body, the damage they create can be much greater than damage caused by x-rays and gamma rays. Plutonium particles lodged within the body steadily bombard surrounding tissue with radiation, probably for the rest of one’s life. Over time, the result may be cancer, a compromised immune system or some other ailment, including genetic harm that can be transmitted to future generations.
“The black star in the middle of this picture shows the tracks made by alpha rays emitted from a particle of plutonium-239 in the lung tissue of an ape. The alpha rays do not travel very far, but once inside the body, they can penetrate more than 10,000 cells within their range. This set of alpha tracks (magnified 500 times) occurred over a 48-hour period” (Robert Del Tredici, At Work in the Fields of the Bomb , plate 39).
Herman Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1946 for his discovery that radiation damage could affect future generations. He predicted gradual reduction of humankind’s survival ability due to exposure to radiation over multiple generations (“Radiation and Heredity,” American Journal of Public Health, 1964). His work suggests that radiation introduced into the world by humans may in time destroy our species. A British research team concluded that chromosomal damage from plutonium exposure is essentially “infinite,” because the extent of harm to the human gene pool is incalculable (M. A. Khadim et al., Nature, Feb. 1992). Commenting on the work of Khadim’s group, science writer Rob Edwards observed that the resultant “genomic instability” may account for illnesses other than cancer, illnesses so elusive that epidemiology is “powerless” to detect any relationship between their incidence and exposure to radiation (New Scientist, vol. 11, Oct. 1997, pp. 37-40).
What is clear is that the official incautious attitude toward the plutonium remaining in the environment at Rocky Flats after completion of what DOE called its “risk-based cleanup” means we are gambling with people’s lives now and into the deep future. The government agencies that approved hazardous conditions at Rocky Flats and removed most of the site from the national Superfund list are prime exemplars of the risk society. When they tell us that the contaminants left in the environment are “safe,” what they mean is that they meet official standards for permissible exposure. They rarely emphasize that exposure standards by their very nature allow some level of risk. Besides, their ways of calculating risk do not take into account the enormous range of individual susceptibility to exposure to radiation. What doesn’t harm one may very well harm another.
Distribution of plutonium contamination from Rocky Flats in becquerels per square meter (one becquerel equals one disintegration or burst of radiation per second). The original version of this map was prepared by P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Health and Safety Laboratory, New York City, and published in their 1970 report, “Plutonium in Soil Around the Rocky Flats Plant,” HASL 235. Sampling done in September 2011 along Indiana St. by independent scientist Marco Kaltofen showed that present deposits of plutonium are roughly equivalent to the levels measured by Krey and Hardy in 1970. The dotted red line shows the route of the proposed Jefferson Parkway. If built, it will pass through the heart of the area shown by Krey and Hardy to be the most heavily contaminated. Recent residential construction is also on some of the more contaminated land.
Of course, those who establish and enforce standards for permissible exposure know as well as I do that the National Academy of Sciences, in its 2006 study Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation concluded categorically that any exposure to radiation is potentially harmful. This means there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation, something that Karl Z. Morgan, “the father of health physics” at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, concluded during his studies that began with the Manhattan Project. And those who set and enforce standards for Rocky Flats must certainly be familiar with the British “Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters” that concluded in 2004 that the cancer risk from very low-doses of plutonium may be ten or more times more dangerous than allowed for by existing exposure standards (see www.cerrie.org ).
This last point is strongly reinforced from a different angle by research done by Tom K. Hei and colleagues of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. They demonstrated that a single plutonium alpha particle induces mutations in mammalian cells. Cells receiving very low doses were more likely to be damaged than destroyed. Replication of these damaged cells constitutes genetic harm, and more such harm per unit dose occurs at very low doses than would occur with higher dose exposures. “These data,” they concluded, “provide direct evidence that a single alpha particle traversing a nucleus will have a high probability of resulting in a mutation and highlight the need for radiation protection at low doses” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 94, Apr. 1997). In a follow-up study, they found that “a single alpha particle can induce mutations and chromosome aberrations in [adjacent] cells that received no direct radiation exposure to their DNA,” what is often referred to as “the bystander effect” (Ibid, vol. 98, 4 Dec. 2001).
During more than a decade that I served on oversight and advisory bodies focused on the “cleanup” at Rocky Flats, when I asked government personnel responsible for protecting public health about such studies, I typically got a blank stare, as if I’d trespassed into sacred space.
For several years I was privileged to be a member of two committees of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), a non-government body that researches radiation health effects and makes recommendations to government and industry regarding exposure standards. I hoped, as a token outsider, that I could persuade this elite body of radiation health specialists to open their deliberations to people directly affected by the exposure standards they were calculating, especially to workers in the nuclear industry and people who live or work near nuclear installations. Two activist colleagues and I were invited to make a presentation at the NCRP annual meeting in 2003; there was a vigorous dismissal of what we proposed. Our paper was later published, under the title “Stakeholder Perspectives on Radiation Protection” (Lisa Ledwidge, LeRoy Moore and Lisa Crawford in Health Physics, Sept. 2004). The article garnered zero feedback. I soon thereafter resigned from the committees to which I had belonged.
Regarding those responsible for radiation exposure standards, Beck observes: “Whoever limits pollution has also concurred in it.” Official exposure standards “may indeed prevent the very worst from happening, but they are at the same time ‘blank checks’ to poison nature and mankind a bit” (Risk Society, p. 64). In other words, we give the agencies charged with protecting public health permission to poison us. Because susceptibility to toxins varies widely, who can say which one of us will be among the vulnerable that receive a lethal dose?
Of course, our friends in the animal kingdom that visit Rocky Flats or reside there are also susceptible. In 2002 a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service study found low levels of plutonium and other radionuclides in the bodies of deer from the site. This research was done not out of concern for the animals but for humans who might hunt and eat such deer; the study concluded that they’d not be likely to get cancer. Little is known about the effect on wildlife of radiation exposure. Few studies have been done. At Rocky Flats none have sought to determine genetic effects of exposure to radiation on wildlife. When Muller discovered genetic harm from radiation exposure he was examining a tiny insect, the tietze fly. Genetic specialist Dietard Tautz says that effects of radiation exposure on a given species of wildlife may not be readily apparent in individuals of that species until the passage of several generations. He calls this a “genetic uncertainty problem” (Trends in Genetics, vol. 16 [Nov. 2000], pp. 475-477). This finding suggests that wildlife at Rocky Flats could in the long term be hurt by conditions at the site, and that by the time humans realize what has happened, irreparable harm will have been done.
Elk and deer are present at Rocky Flats in sizeable numbers. No studies have been done to determine genetic effects of radiation exposure on these and other species of wildlife at Rocky Flats. The photo of the albino fawn was taken on the site.
Without question, of all creatures those most vulnerable to plutonium are human infants and children. This is so because:
- A human child is more likely than an adult to stir up dust, to eat dirt, to breathe in gasps, or to scrape a knee or elbow — all ways of taking tiny particles of plutonium into the body.
- Since a child’s body is smaller than an adult’s, internalized plutonium has more damaging power because the ratio of plutonium to body mass is significantly greater,
- Plutonium within a child’s body integrates with the child’s growth and tissue development.
- By contrast to adult humans or other beings, a child’s normal life span provides far more time for internalized alpha emitters to harm her or his health.
In the face of an environment at Rocky Flats contaminated with plutonium particles too small to see but not too small to do harm, the vulnerability of children was a major reason 81% of the 1,280 parties commenting in 2004 told U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service not to allow public access to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Only 11% of commenting parties explicitly favored access. U.S. Fish & Wildlife (sometimes called “Fission Wildlife”) ignored this expression of public opinion and approved access (see U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge: Appendix H, Comments and Responses on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Sept. 2004; for analysis, see http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/required-reading/public-rejects-refuge-access/ ).
Beck points out that the afflictions posed by high-tech and ecological risks “have a new quality,” in that “they are no longer tied to their place origin, the industrial plant. By their nature they endanger all forms of life on this planet.” This is especially true of nuclear pollutants, because “they outlast generations” and transcend space as well as time in that the harmful material has been and will continue to be carried by the wind great distances. Borders are no barriers to the free movement of invisible radioactive particles. “In the risk society, the unknown and unintended consequences come to be a dominant force in history and society” (Risk Society, p. 22).
The foregoing doesn’t square with the “cleanup” done at Rocky Flats, based as it was on the assumption that plutonium left behind will not migrate. This conclusion, reached by the multi-year Actinide Migration Evaluation done at the site, was derived mainly from computer modeling, not from empirical observation. But there are numerous empirical observations to counter this conclusion. The two most notable are, first, Dr. M. Iggy Litaor’s direct detection with instruments set up in the field at Rocky Flats of significant plutonium migration in surface and sub-surface soil in the unusually wet spring of 1995. Second is ecologist Shawn Smallwood’s 1996 study of burrowing animals at Rocky Flats. He identified 18 species that dig 10 to 16 feet below the surface and constantly take surface material down and bring buried material up, in the process disturbing in any given year as much as 11 to 12% of surface soil on the site. Their activity makes plutonium particles available for redistribution by wind, rain, traffic, animal, human and other forces (for references and more detail, see “Science compromised,” at http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/leroy-moores-blog/papers-by-leroy-moore-phd-2/ ).
An unfortunate characteristic of risk society is that most scientists, especially in the nuclear field, have allied themselves with the centers of power in industry and government. The late Karl Z. Morgan, the “father of health physics” referred to earlier, pointed to this situation. He pioneered the field of radiation protection as part of the Manhattan Project and was for nearly thirty years head of health physics at the Oak Ridge National Lab. He was a founder of both the International Commission on Radiation Protection and the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, the two leading bodies responsible for recommending standards for permissible exposures to ionizing radiation. And he founded the Health Physics Society to protect people. Originally he and others in this new field believed that there was a threshold of radiation exposure below which harm would not occur, but he came to realize that there is no such thing as a safe dose and, crucially, that exposures at very low doses are more harmful per unit dose than exposures at higher doses. Toward the end of his long career he proposed reducing the maximum allowable lifetime plutonium body burden for nuclear workers 200-fold (American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, August 1975). His proposal was ignored. After his retirement from the Oak Ridge Lab members of the Health Physics Society treated him as persona non grata. His autobiography explains how this organization came to be dominated by those more interested in protecting the industry rather than the exposed. He cites the moment when a president of the Health Physics Society told his colleagues, “Let’s all put our mouth where our money is” (Morgan and Ken M. Peterson, The Angry Genie: One Man’s Walk through the Nuclear Age, 1998, pp. 115-116).
Colorado was fortunate to have an outstanding public health servant in the person of Carl J. Johnson, MD, for several years Director of the Jefferson County Health Department. His best-known study, published in 1981 in Ambio, the journal of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, showed a direct correspondence between areas of plutonium contamination across the Denver metro area and cancer incidence within those same areas (see the map below). Though both the DOE and the State Health Department tried unsuccessfully to discredit this report, it remains as a work of integrity. By the time the study was actually published, however, real estate interests had gained the upper hand within the Jefferson County Commissioners and forced Johnson out of his job. (For a detailed analysis of Johnson’s work, see “Democracy and Public Health at Rocky Flats,” at http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/leroy-moores-blog/papers-by-leroy-moore-phd-2/ ).
Carl J. Johnson studied cancer incidence for 1969-1971 among Anglos in three areas downwind of Rocky Flats defined by levels of plutonium contamination in millicuries per square kilometer as compared to the uncontaminated control Area IV. Area I on this map showed 16% more cancer than the non-contaminated area, Area II 12% more cancer, and Area III 6% more (Johnson, “Cancer Incidence in an Area Contaminated with Radionuclides Near a Nuclear Installation,” AMBIO, 10, 4, October 1981, p. 177).
Finally, Ulrich Beck says, “Risks of modernization sooner or later also strike those who produce or profit from them. They contain a boomerang effect, which breaks up the pattern of class and national society. Ecological disaster and atomic fallout ignore the borders of nations. Even the rich and powerful are not safe from them” (Risk Society, p. 23). As the effects of the risk society proliferate, populations will be increasingly divided between “the affected” and “the not-yet affected.” Beck’s prognosis for the risk society’s future is more pointed than Muller’s prediction of genetic collapse. “The escalating scarcity of health will drive even those still well off today into the ranks of the ‘soup kitchens’ . . . tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow into the pariah community of the invalid and the wounded. . . Freedom from risk can turn overnight into irreversible affliction.” (Risk Society, p. 40)
The author at Indiana St. and 96th Ave. (SE corner of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge) on a windy day, June 17, 2011. The proposed Jefferson Parkway would pass directly through the spot where he stands. Nearby is earth moved for the Candelas residential and commercial development slated to run across the southern edge of the Rocky Flats site. Photo by Robert Del Tredici.
The “cleanup” done at Rocky Flats could not have happened as it did had the “precautionary principle” been applied. Ditto for plans to build a highway on the most contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site, or to build large residential developments on contaminated land near Rocky Flsts or to allow public access to the site. What is the precautionary principle? Here is the January 26, 1998, Wingspread formulation:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” (http://www.sehn.org/wing.html)
The U.S. lags behind several countries and the European Union that have written this principle into their code of laws. Laws of course reflect consciousness, but laws also shape consciousness.
Beck points to the necessity for fundamental cultural change, what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and others refer to as “the great turning” from environmental risk-taking to ecological responsibility. Such a change happens as affected people — and we are all affected — awaken to the dangers of our risk society and join with others to do something about it. The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship project of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is devoted to this end. The first principle of the Nuclear Guardianship Ethic is: “Each generation shall endeavor to preserve the foundations of life and well-being for those who come after. To produce and abandon substances that damage following generations is morally unacceptable.” We invite others to join us in the work of Guardianship (see http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org ).