Recent book on Rocky Flats by a health physicist at the plant

In Environment, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on November 28, 2011 at 3:49 am

Clayton Lagerquist, The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant I Remember: Its Rise and Fall (Morrisville, NC: Lulu.com, 2009). The author of this highly opinionated book was a health physicist at Rocky Flats from 1963 till 1988. Alongside his descriptions of individuals and the radiation detection world at the plant, he levels harsh criticisms at elected officials, the plant union, the media, and the Federal Government ¬ for supervising all activities at Rocky Flats, then suing Rockwell International for environmental misconduct. He says “the anti-Rocky Flats movement” that “ultimately caused its closure” and was “nothing but terrorists without guns” (p. 86).

“Safety of the employees,” he says, “was never a problem at Rocky Flats.” These are clearly not the words of an exposed production worker wanting a safer workplace. When a management colleague named Ron Reed urged Lagerquist “to reduce radiation exposure by a certain percent each quarter,” his reply was that he couldn’t because “any reduction would have to be accompanied by a reduction in production” (pp. 126-127). So here’s the health physicist, whose responsibility it is to protect workers, putting production ahead of safety. He claims that the plant’s records of workplace exposure fall well within the ranges of safety defined by NCRP and ICRP. But he never mentions the 1987 study by Los Alamos epidemiologist Greg Wilkinson that found excess cancers among some Rocky Flats workers exposed to as little as 5% of DOE’s permissible lifetime body burden for plutonium. Langerquist had to have known of this study since it was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1987, the year before Lagerquist left Rocky Flats. The study created something of a firestorm at Los Alamos, because Wilkinson defied his supervisor who had told him not to publish the article until he had modified the results to “please the customer” (DOE).

An item in Lagerquist’s book that disturbed me even more than what he said about worker safety is his very brief reference to Wright Langham, whose work, he says, “was later criticized as human experimentation with plutonium but all he did was inject trace quantities of plutonium into some human volunteers and measure the amount that was excreted as a function of time” (pp. 52-53). Is Langerquist really this poorly informed? Eileen Welsome’s closely documented Plutonium Files (1999), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize, shows in great detail that Langham was one of the architects of the plutonium human experiments conducted not on volunteers but on unwitting subjects using not trace amounts of plutonium but quantities “five times the amount of plutonium the Manhattan Project scientists had just declared could be retained without harm to the human body” (Welsome, p. 126). Langerquist’s book displays the disturbing ethos of the health physics profession at Rocky Flats at the height of production at the plant.

  1. Whats a Health Physicist anyways? A particle doctor? LOL, my Molecules hurt.

    • Good question. In my article I stated that the health physicist at Rocky Flats was responsible for protecting the health of workers at the plant who might be exposed to radiation in the workplace. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the term: “Health physics is a field of science concerned with radiation physics and radiation biology with the goal of providing technical information and proper techniques regarding the safe use of ionizing radiation. Health physicists principally work at facilities where radionuclides or ionizing radiation are used or produced such as medical institutions, government laboratories, academic and research institutions, nuclear power plants, regulatory agencies and manufacturing plants.” Rocky Flats, of course, was a manufacturing plant that produced the fissile plutonium “pit” at the core of nuclear warheads.

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