Archive for the ‘Rocky Flats’ Category

Rocky Flats: The refuge with a radioactive past The opening of the Rocky Flats wildlife refuge may be close, but the debate over the land’s safety lingers

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 25, 2018 at 7:16 am

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that wildlife refuges ensure that future generations will always have an outdoor place to enjoy nature.

But some people won’t set foot on Rocky Flats once it opens as a wildlife refuge, much less allow their children or grandchildren to go there.

“It’s a shame,” said Stephanie Carroll, president and founder of Rocky Flats Worker Advocacy, “because it’s a beautiful site. But it’s a superfund site. You don’t build homes on a superfund site. And you don’t recreate on a superfund site.”

Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre area of open land bordered by Broomfield, Boulder and Jefferson counties managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although there is no set date, it previously was anticipated to open for public recreation late this summer.

However, seven Colorado school districts have banned field trips to Rocky Flats in the past year — Boulder Valley School District being the first one to do so last year and Denver Public Schools being the most recent, adopting its resolution on April 26. The others are Jefferson County Public Schools, Westminster Public Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14 and St. Vrain Valley School District.

With its picturesque views and immense opportunities for viewing wildlife and diverse plants, Rocky Flats was recognized as a special place more than 20 years ago, said Michael D’Agostino, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

Rocky Flats will be an urban refuge, he said.

“A local place where people can reconnect with nature,” D’Agostino said. “It will be a really unique experience for people and an exciting place for outdoor enthusiasts.”

Formerly the location of the nation’s primary producer of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the opening follows a $7 billion cleanup effort that, despite a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification that the clean-up complied with all appropriate laws and regulations, some say still wasn’t enough.

“Public health and safety may be at risk from inadequate analysis of whether to open Rocky Flats for hiking, biking and horseback riding,” said Randall Weiner, the attorney representing the citizens groups that filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What they want are additional environmental reviews that look at the alternatives to, and impacts of, opening Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the public when there is un-remediated plutonium on-site.

Jefferson County Public Health does not have an official stance on the opening of the refuge, however Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, has a personal opinion he recently shared in a letter to the court in the lawsuit.

“I believe there was/is contamination on Rocky Flats and that some of it has escaped from Rocky Flats into the surrounding neighborhoods, but how much there is/was and what the health consequences of it are/were are not clear to me,” Johnson wrote to the court. “I honestly do not know how dangerous it is to live in its shadow. I believe we have the data to tell us the truth, but I do not believe all of it has been analyzed by truly independent sources.”

The lawsuit is currently in the process of preparing for trial. The refuge will remain closed until it is settled.

Confident in the cleanup

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for the long-term surveillance and maintenance of about 1,300 acres where the core operations and productions of the former plant took place. The wildlife refuge forms a donut-shape around this area, which was formerly the plant’s buffer zone.

By law, the EPA has to conduct an environmental review, including soil and water sampling, of the land every five years to ensure its safety. This is standard practice for any superfund site, D’Agostino said. The last one at Rocky Flats took place in 2017.

“We’re confident in the cleanup and remediation,” D’Agostino said, noting the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work closely with the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). “We continue to be confident in their conclusions and recommendations. They are the public health experts.”

According to the CDPHE’s website, plutonium contamination was one of the primary concerns at Rocky Flats, but “following remediation, residual plutonium concentrations in surface soil were below levels of regulatory concern.”

Millirem (mrem) is a way to express radiation exposure.

In a document dated May 2016 produced by the EPA, CDPHE and DOE, one test that was done to gauge radiation at Rocky Flats was calculating the risks for a child and an adult who hypothetically visited the refuge 100 days a year for 2 1/2 hours per day.

“The dose estimate for plutonium for the wildlife refuge visitor child is .2 mrem per year, which is a very small fraction of the average annual dose to (the) U.S. public from all sources,” the document states.

It notes the average annual dose from all sources, including medical such as x-rays and natural such as drinking water, is 620 mrem per year.

Messy history

Still, Carroll believes opening Rocky Flats is too risky, noting the winds and soil can contain a variety of contaminants.

“What’s dangerous about that site is that it wasn’t properly characterized,” Carroll said. “There were a lot more radionuclides than just plutonium on that site.”

She believes the information the public receives is “watered down,” she said, adding, “they don’t get the whole truth.”

Carroll has been involved with advocacy for people who formerly worked with nuclear material since 2001 when she learned the ins-and-outs of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program through her grandfather, who worked at Rocky Flats.

She specializes in beryllium and working with those who may have contracted chronic beryllium disease, also called berylliosis, which is a systemic disease that primarily affects the lungs and is caused by exposure to beryllium, from former employment at Rocky Flats.

Joyce Bolton of Denver is one of the people Carroll has worked with.

“I can’t prove it, but I think it’s still out there,” Bolton said of the possible contaminants at Rocky Flats. “I don’t think they could ever get rid of it.”

Bolton, 78, worked at Rocky Flats from January 1968 until she retired in August 1992. She added she wasn’t sure if people knew the dangers of working at Rocky Flats at the time.

“Back in those days, people wanted jobs,” Bolton said. “And that was a good job — stable, and it paid very well.”

The majority of Bolton’s time was spent in the human resources department, which required her to go all over the plant — but she didn’t know the specifics of what was being made at the plant.

“No clerical person needed to know what they were manufacturing out there,” Bolton said. “We took all the safety measures, but I still got sick.”

It’s hard for the general public to understand the work that went on there, said Michelle Dobrovolny, 53, of Denver who worked at Rocky Flats as an engineering specialist and safeguards and security specialist.

“It was a national security facility. We made bombs,” Dobrovolny said. “We were always taught secrecy, secrecy, secrecy. It was bred into us.”

Dobrovolny worked at Rocky Flats for a total of 18 years, beginning in 1985 when she was 21. She said she was constantly sick while working there — strep throat, pneumonia, sinus infections — and had to take a medical leave in 2001. She has since been diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease.

Dobrovolny believes cleanup efforts at Rocky Flats were not sufficient, pointing out that she thinks “they cut corners” and shut down the cleanup about five or six years early.

According to the CDPHE’s website, cleanup of the site was a 10-year process. It included decontaminating and demolishing more than 800 structures and buildings at the plant — five of those were major plutonium facilities and two were major uranium facilities.

But Dobrovolny questions how Building 771 — a facility “notoriously known as one of the most dangerous buildings in the world because of the plutonium” — could possibly be dismantled, she said.

“They will tell you that they did,” Dobrovolny said, “but it is my opinion that they didn’t.”

Natural appeal

Arvada City Councilor Mark McGoff is an avid hiker and plans on hiking Rocky Flats once it opens.

It will be a “new area to explore on foot,” he said. “One more local place to add to my inventory of places to hike.”

He is especially excited that Rocky Flats will serve as an extension of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail. The Greenway Trail is a trail network that currently connects Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge in Arvada to the Great Western Open Space in Broomfield and is proposed to extend to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park.

Well-established Boulder county open space trails to the north of the refuge would also potentially tie into the new trails.

McGoff, 78, has been involved with the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council for about seven years. The council consists of elected officials from 10 municipal governments that neighbor Rocky Flats, three community organizations and one individual. It formed in February 2006 to provide ongoing local government and community oversight of Rocky Flats while providing a public forum for sharing information concerning Rocky Flats.

McGoff mentioned he wouldn’t advocate one way or the other — he noted that some people don’t accept or agree with the findings from the studies. But for him, the presentations from the various agencies on the studies confirm that they are accurate.

“I believe in the science — the evidence is conclusive,” McGoff said. “That tells me that the refuge is safe.”


After decades of secrets, Rocky Flats still gives me pause

In Democracy, Environment, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Politics, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 17, 2018 at 1:19 am

Denver Post, June 16, 2018

I most likely owe my very existence to the atomic bomb.

My father was in what was supposed to be the first wave of soldiers to occupy Japan in World War II. Based on the battles of Iwo Jima, Guam, and Okinawa, they had been told by their commanding officers that there was little chance they would survive. It had been estimated that the U.S. would lose at least a million soldiers in the occupation. My father figured he would be one of them.

My father strongly believed that more lives were saved than were lost by our use of nuclear weapons. Over the years he convinced me that was true.

I am, however, opposed to nuclear contamination.

Rocky Flats has become infamous for nuclear contamination. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and anyone else who has studied Rocky Flats admits that there was massive nuclear and hazardous waste contamination at the site. They also admit that the contamination was both inside and outside the boundaries of the plant.

The contamination, mostly from plutonium fires and corroding drums full of nuclear hazardous waste, was kept secret from the public by the DOE and its contractors until 1969. The highly visible billowing black smoke from a fire that year made it obvious to outside observers that nuclear contamination was escaping from the site. Independent tests were performed to assess the extent of contamination. When the civilian monitoring teams challenged government officials with the observed measurements, they were told that actually, most of the offsite contamination had come from a more catastrophic fire in 1957. It was the first time anyone in the public had been made aware of that disaster.

Due to Cold War fears and the growing number of military targets identified behind the Iron Curtain, DOE pushed its contractors hard to produce more and more plutonium triggers faster and faster. Safety for workers and the community was secondary, or an afterthought. The contractors were given blanket immunity by the federal government for most lawsuits, should problems occur. This attitude led to numerous accidents and unnecessary exposures for workers, as well as growing piles of waste that had to be stored onsite. Plutonium was handled in such a haphazard fashion that more than a ton of it was eventually lost, or unaccounted for. This culture led to Rocky Flats being ranked by the DOE as the most dangerous nuclear site in the United States. Two of its buildings made the list of the ten most contaminated buildings in America. Building 771 at Rocky Flats was number one.

In 1989, based on information from a plant whistle-blower alleging environmental crimes, the FBI and EPA raided Rocky Flats. This eventually led to the closure of the site and a special grand jury which, after more than 3 years of testimony, sought to criminally indict three government officials and five employees of the plant contractor. The Department of Justice refused to indict, however, and instead negotiated a plea bargain with the contractor, who was required to pay an $18.5 million fine. This was less than they collected in bonuses from the DOE that year, despite more than 400 environmental violations being identified. The evidence and findings of the grand jury were sealed by court order.

When Rocky Flats closed, the DOE estimated that it would take over $35 billion and 70 years to adequately clean the site. Congress appropriated them only $7 billion, and clean-up began.

What is contested is how much contamination remains on- and offsite after the clean-up, and what risk, if any, may persist. The government has reams of data and multiple exhibits supporting their claim that the risk is low. Concerned community groups and anti-nuclear activists also have data supporting their claim that the risk is not negligible.

I do not know where the truth lies. There is credible science and support on both sides. What I do know is that two of the men who have seen the most evidence concerning the level of contamination at Rocky Flats, the lead agent for the FBI raid and the foreman of the grand jury, continue to advocate for the prohibition of public access to the site. This gives me great pause.

When I was a kid, I guess I watched too many westerns.

They led me to believe that it was a noble thing to stand up to powerful forces when you thought they may be wrong, or when you felt you needed more information before you could support them. They lied to me. In real life, what I have found is that when I have the temerity to question the government’s claims, or ask for additional, independent information to help me decide where the truth may lie, I am labeled a “general of the scare brigade”, “reckless” and “irresponsible”.

I just wish I had the level of certainty that they have who feel so confident in publicly shaming my search for truth.

Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH, is executive director of Jefferson County Public Health.

The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess. The demand for atomic energy is in decline. But before the country can abandon its plants, there’s six decades of waste to deal with.

In Cost, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on May 30, 2018 at 8:59 am

Atlantic, May 28, 2018

It was just another day in the life of the defunct Hanford nuclear site, a remote part of Washington State that made most of the plutonium in America’s Cold War arsenal. On the morning of May 9, 2017, alarms sounded. Around 2,000 site workers were told to take cover indoors, and aircraft were banned from flying over the site for several hours. The roof of a tunnel had collapsed, exposing railcars that had been loaded with radioactive waste from plutonium production and then shunted underground and sealed in decades before.This post is adapted from Pearce’s new book.
There was other stuff down there too. Nobody quite knew what. Record keeping was poor, but the contents of the tunnels certainly included carcasses from animal radiation experiments, including a reported 18 alligators. The emergency lasted only a few hours. The integrity of the waste was restored. But it was a chilling reminder of the site’s perilous radioactive legacy.

Sprawling across 600 square miles of sagebrush semidesert, Hanford is a $100 billion cleanup burden, full of accidents waiting to happen. It is the biggest headache, but very far from being the only one, emerging in what increasingly look like the final years of America’s nuclear age.

It is 60 years since America’s first commercial nuclear power station was opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Shippingport, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1958. But the hopes of a nuclear future with power “too cheap to meter” are now all but over. All that is left is the trillion-dollar cleanup.

Public fear and suspicion about all things nuclear grew sharply after March 1979, when the cooling system at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station failed and triggered a meltdown. In the end, actual releases of radiation were minimal, but the incident left behind a reputational mess in addition to the radiological one. On the day of the accident, the United States had 140 operating nuclear reactors, with 92 under construction and 28 more awaiting official approval. In the next five years, more than 50 orders for new nuclear reactors in America were canceled. New contracts entirely dried up.

Hanford has not produced plutonium for three decades. Nobody is making new material for bombs anymore. President Trump’s plans for more weapons can be met by recycling existing plutonium stocks. And even the civil nuclear industry, which still generates a fifth of America’s electricity, is in what looks like terminal decline. With cheap natural gas and renewable solar and wind energy increasingly available, the numbers no longer add up. Nuclear power plants across the nation are being closed with years of licensed operation unused.

No new nuclear power stations have come on line in the past two decades. The only new build underway, two additional reactors at Georgia Power’s Alvin W. Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, is five years behind schedule and has seen its costs double. Its planned completion in 2022 remains uncertain.

America’s 99 remaining operational nuclear power reactors, which still deliver power to the grid, are too important to be closed overnight. But nearly half are over 40 years old. The only question is how long the regulators and accountants will allow them to keep going.

Oyster Creek in New Jersey disconnects from the grid in October with 11 years left on its license. Indian Point in New York State is to shut by 2021 due to falling revenues and rising costs. In California, Diablo Canyon is being closed by state regulators in 2025. The reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that survived the 1979 accident will finally shut in 2019.

Shutdown is only the beginning of the end. Final closure and clearance of the sites can take decades, and the waste crisis created by decommissioning cannot be dodged. Lethal radioactive material is accumulating at dozens of power plants, military facilities, and interim stores across the country.

Some, like the train cars buried at Hanford, is evidently in a precarious situation. Much more needs urgent attention. Cleaning up and safely disposing of the residues of the nuclear adventure—much of it waste with a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years—is turning into a trillion-dollar nightmare for the nation.

Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is an oasis of prairie biodiversity covering 5,000 acres, home to prairie dogs, elk, monarch butterflies, and rare xeric grasses. It also serves as a buffer zone around the site of the largest completed nuclear cleanup to date in the United States. And David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to open it for public access in summer 2018. He’s reckoning on 150,000 visitors a year.

During the Cold War, Rocky Flats was secretly machining plutonium manufactured at Hanford into some 70,000 spheres that formed the explosive heart of each weapon in Uncle Sam’s nuclear arsenal. Plutonium pollution was routine. The plant had nowhere to get rid of the day-to-day plutonium waste, which was often dumped in hastily dug landfills or sprayed onto grassland around the plant. At an outdoor compound known as pad 903, where more than 5,000 drums of waste liquids contaminated with plutonium are stored, there’s been substantial leakage. An internal memo reported that rabbits living on the site were heavily contaminated, especially in their hind feet.

A whistle-blower’s allegations about illegal late-night incineration of plutonium waste at the plant led to an FBI raid in 1989. After that—and with demand for plutonium spheres declining following the end of the Cold War—the government closed the site. A federal grand jury sat for three years to hear testimony from the FBI raid. But two days after the jury approved indictments, the Justice Department struck a deal with Rockwell Automation, the company that managed the plant. The company pleaded guilty to some minor charges, but the FBI evidence and grand jury conclusions were sealed forever.

After the cover-up came the cleanup. The core plutonium-handling areas were declared a Superfund site, qualifying for a federal decontamination, which was completed in 2005. The federal government called it “the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history.” But in reality it was a cut-price job. The original project was estimated at $37 billion, but Congress would sanction only $7 billion. So processing buildings were demolished, but basements and 25 miles of underground tunnels and pipelines were left behind, according to LeRoy Moore, a veteran activist who sat on a public committee in the 1980s that considered the cleanup plans.

Today, the land that housed the industrial complex remains behind a sturdy fence under the control of the Department of Energy (DOE). But the large grassland buffer zone that once protected the complex from prying eyes has been released into the care of the Fish and Wildlife Service for public access.

There are two concerns. First that, as I saw on a tour with Lucas, the fenced-off core area hardly looks self-contained. Earth slips have left ugly gashes up to 300 feet wide across a former landfill site that overlooks a creek running through the wildlife refuge. The DOE’s Scott Surovchak concedes that “slumping is very common” after heavy rain. Only constant repairs, it seems, will prevent the landfills and buried contaminated buildings and pipework from being exposed.

The second concern is the safety of the buffer zone itself. Harvey Nichols, a biologist from the University of Colorado, has found that when the plant was operating snow falling nearby was often “hot.” Falling snowflakes captured tiny plutonium particles that evaded the stack filter. Just two days of snowfall could deposit about 14 million particles on every acre of the site. “There must be tens of billions of particles in the soil today,” he told me.

The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed such concerns. In 2006 it found plutonium levels in soil samples in the buffer zone were within acceptable limits and concluded that the lands comprising the refuge are “suitable for unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.” But Moore, the activist, is unimpressed. “Prairie dogs and other critters will burrow down for several feet and bring plutonium to the surface,” he says. “Children will be exposed to plutonium. And people will start taking plutonium out into their communities on boots and cycle wheels. Why would we allow that?”

Lucas is unmoved. “We need to get people out here on the refuge. Then the fears will evaporate,” he told me. But that is just what worries his opponents. Forgetting about the plutonium is the worst thing that could happen, they say.

About 30 miles northeast of Rocky Flats, out on the prairie near the small town of Platteville, is the Fort St. Vrain spent-fuel store. It resembles nothing so much as an outsize grain store, but since the 1990s it has been holding 1,400 spent fuel rods, laced with plutonium and encased in blocks of graphite. The spent fuel was left behind when the neighboring nuclear power plant shut. The plan had been to send it to another temporary store at the Idaho National Laboratory, but the governor of Idaho banned the shipment. The Fort St. Vrain facility is designed to withstand earthquakes, tornado winds of up to 360 miles per hour, and flooding six feet deep. Also time. It will be several decades at least before the federal government finds the fuel a final resting place.

The country is littered with such caches of spent fuel stuck in limbo. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 80,000 metric tons of spent fuel, the most dangerous of all nuclear wastes, is stored at 80 sites in 35 states. The sites include stores at past and present power plants such as Maine Yankee, and stand-alone federal sites such as Fort St. Vrain. As the GAO puts it: “After spending decades and billions of dollars … the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.” Nobody wants to give the stuff a forever home.

Nuclear waste is conventionally categorized as high-, intermediate-, or low-level. Low-level waste includes everything from discarded protective clothing to plant equipment and lab waste. It can usually be treated like any other hazardous waste, which in practice usually means burial in drums in landfills or concrete-lined trenches.

Intermediate waste contains radioactive materials with isotopes that decay with half-lives long enough to require long-term incarceration. It includes many reactor components, as well as chemical sludges and liquids from processing radioactive materials, which can often be solidified in concrete blocks. Once solid, intermediate waste can be buried safely in shallow graves, though anything containing plutonium will have to be disposed of deep underground because of the very long half-life.

Much of America’s intermediate-level waste will end up at the country’s largest deep-burial site for such radioactive material. The U.S. military’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in salt beds near Carlsbad, New Mexico, could eventually take 6.2 million cubic feet of waste. But it has had problems that have slowed progress and raised questions about its viability.

A chemical explosion in 2014 sprayed the tunnels dug into the salt beds with a white, radioactive foam. When a ventilation filter failed, some of the plutonium reached the surface, where at least 17 surface workers were contaminated. The military shut the tunnels for three years to clean up. While WIPP is today back in business, full operations cannot resume until a new ventilation system is in place, probably in 2021. The eventual cost of the accident, including keeping the dump open longer to catch up with the waste backlog, has been put at $2 billion.

High-level waste is the nastiest stuff. It includes all spent fuel and a range of highly radioactive waste liquids produced when spent fuel is reprocessed, a chemical treatment that extracts the plutonium. Most of America’s high-level waste liquids—and around 30 percent of the world’s total—are in tanks at Hanford.

High-level waste is either very radioactive and will stay so for a long time, or it generates heat and so requires keeping cool. Usually both. It accounts for more than 95 percent of all the radioactivity in America’s nuclear waste, and needs to be kept out of harm’s way for thousands of years.

There is general agreement that the only way to keep high-level waste safe is by turning the liquids into solids and then burying it all deep underground, somewhere where neither water nor seismic activity is likely to bring the radioactivity to the surface, and where nobody is likely to stumble on it unexpectedly. There is disagreement, however, about whether this buried waste should be kept retrievable in case future technologies could make it safer sooner, or whether accessibility simply places a burden of guardianship on future generations.

Before it can be buried, most high-level waste needs to be stored for up to a century while it cools. Unfortunately, this has encouraged countries to put off making plans. None of the world’s high-level waste currently has any permanent resting place. The planet is instead peppered with interim stores. America is no better. Its 90,000 metric tons of high-level waste—set to rise to as much as 140,000 tonnes by the time the last power plant closes—is mostly sitting in ponds at dozens of power stations or lockups like Fort St. Vrain.

How did the United States reach this impasse? Back in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established that it was the government’s job to deal with this ultimate back-end problem. The act obliged Washington to begin removing used fuel from stores and other facilities by 1998 for eventual disposal at a federal facility. In 1987, Yucca Mountain, near the former Nevada bomb-testing grounds, was chosen to be the sole such facility.

In the 1990s, a five-mile tunnel was dug into the remote mountain. Then work stopped, in part because of vehement state opposition and in part because of concerns raised by geologists that a future volcanic eruption could propel buried waste back to the surface. One of President Obama’s first acts on taking office in 2009 was to formally abandon the $100 billion project. Things headed for the courts, which began awarding damages to power companies unable to make use of the nonexistent federal facility. The payouts amount to around half a billion dollars a year, and by 2022 will likely reach $29 billion.

Now President Trump wants to revive Yucca. His 2019 budget request included $120 million for the task. But the state opposition remains as strong as ever, and only $50 million was included in the final budget for Yucca-related items. Maybe Yucca Mountain will make a comeback. If not, then with no alternatives on the horizon, utilities will carry on being paid to keep spent fuel in pools next to abandoned nuclear power plants, and the interim stores in places such as Fort St. Vrain could be in business not just for decades but for centuries. The nuclear-waste time bomb will keep ticking.

The true heartland of America’s nuclear enterprise has always been Hanford. And it is the biggest and most toxic cleanup legacy too. Straddling the Columbia River, the Hanford nuclear reservation was America’s primary bomb-making factory. It was where they made the plutonium. At peak production, during the 1960s, its nine reactors irradiated 7,000 metric tons of uranium fuel annually. The intense radiation inside the reactors produced plutonium that was then extracted at five reprocessing plants. Hanford produced a total of 67 metric tons of the metal for the American arsenal, before business halted after the Cold War ended.

Plutonium production was a huge task. It required much of the electricity generated at the giant Grand Coulee Dam upstream on the Columbia, the largest hydroelectric power producer in the United States. And the mess left behind is equally mind-boggling. Since production ceased, Hanford has been conducting the country’s largest-ever environmental cleanup program. The current expenditure is $2.3 billion a year. By the time it is done the bill will be more than $100 billion.

The site holds an estimated 25 million cubic feet of solid, radioactive waste. Much of it is buried in over 40 miles of trenches and tunnels, up to 24 feet deep, including the stretch that caved in last year. Elsewhere, there are two corroding cooling ponds, each the size of an Olympic swimming pool, containing some 2,000 tons of spent fuel that never got reprocessed.


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But the headline Hanford problem is the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They are the solvent leftovers from reprocessing, and contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine.

The tanks have been leaking for over half a century. Around a million gallons are slowly spreading toward the Columbia River, in a plume of contaminated soil covering 80 square miles. Protecting the river and its rich salmon habitat from the radioactive pollution is the number-one cleanup priority for the site’s custodians at the Department of Energy. To head off the flows, engineers are constantly pumping out radioactive water.

A better idea is to stop the leaks at the source by emptying the tanks and solidifying the liquids. The current aim is to heat them with glass-forming materials to create solid blocks that could one day be buried deep underground—maybe at Yucca Mountain. Work on a plant to do this began in 2002. It is currently 25 years behind schedule. Operations are not set to begin until 2036 and, once underway, would take 40 years.

At $17 billion and counting, the project is way over budget. Former plant engineers who have turned whistle-blowers believe it won’t be fit for the job and should be abandoned. They warn of a serious risk that particles of plutonium may settle out in the plant processing tanks, creating the potential for an accidental explosion with a big release of radiation.

The task at Hanford grows ever more daunting. After almost three decades, little of the waste and few of the tanks or processing plants have been cleaned up. Far away in Washington, D.C., some question the continuing money sink. It seems to some like a 21st-century pork barrel. Perhaps, critics say, it would be better to put up a fence and walk away. President Trump, while so far publicly supporting the Hanford cleanup, may privately agree. He has slashed its annual budget by $230 million, or about 10 percent.

Local environmentalists are scandalized. “We have got to clean up the site,” says Dan Serres, the conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a local NGO. The tanks should be emptied and the trenches dug up. “In a hundred years, I’d hope the Native Americans have their treaty rights to this land restored,” agrees Chuck Johnson, of Physicians for Social Responsibility. But Tom Carpenter, the executive director of Hanford Challenge, who sits on an advisory board at the Hanford Concerns Council, told me: “You are never going to dig all the waste there up.” The tanks will have to be dealt with, but “most of Hanford’s waste volume-wise is going to stay put. Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years.”

This piece is adapted from Pearce’s new book, Fallout: Disasters, Lies, and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age.

FRED PEARCE is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, and Yale Environment 360.

A Dozen Reasons Why the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Should remain Closed to the Public

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on October 1, 2016 at 1:05 am

Prepared by LeRoy Moore, PhD, Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, September 2016

After completion of the Superfund cleanup of the 6,500-acre site of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant, about three-fourths of the site (roughly 7 square miles) was removed from the Superfund list of most contaminated sites and transferred from the Department of Energy (DOE) to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to operate as a Wildlife Refuge. DOE retained 1,309 acres (about 2 square miles) of more contaminated land that remains on the Superfund list and is surrounded by the Refuge.

  1. Long-term danger of plutonium Plutonium 239, the contaminant of principal concern at Rocky Flats, has a half-life of 24,110 years. It remains dangerously radioactive for more than a quarter-million years. Any quantity left in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger.
  2. Plutonium’s lethal quality The alpha radiation emitted by plutonium cannot penetrate skin. But tiny particles inhaled or taken into the body through an open wound will lodge somewhere in the body. For as long as it resides in the body – typically for the rest of one’s life – it bombards surrounding cells with radiation. The result may be cancer, a compromised immune system or genetic harm passed on to future generations.
  3. Hazardous in very small amounts Plutonium particles of 10 microns or smaller can be inhaled. One micron is 1/millionth of a meter (a meter is 39.37 inches, slightly longer than a yard). For further comparison, the average diameter of a human hair is about 50 microns. Meteorologist W. Gale Biggs found that airborne particles at Rocky Flats “are probably smaller than 0.01 microns.” Researchers at Columbia University demonstrated that a single plutonium particle induces mutations in mammal cells. Cells receiving very low doses were more likely to be damaged than destroyed. Replication of these damaged cells constitutes genetic harm that can become cancer, and more such harm per unit dose occurs at very low doses than would occur with higher doses.
  4. Extent of contamination at Rocky Flats unknown Fires, accidents, routine operations, and random dumping during production years released plutonium particles to the environment. The prevailing wind heads east and southeast, but it blows in all directions some of the time. Hence, plutonium was scattered across the whole of the nearly 10 square-mile site. No one knows the full extent of the contamination because this was not determined. The methods used to locate plutonium could have missed hot spots.
  5. The difference between the cleanup the public sought and what it got In 1995 the single most widely supported cleanup recommendation from the public called for eventual cleanup to average background radiation levels from global fallout, with initial cleanup to go as far in this direction as current technology allows while the site becomes a research lab for development of technology to do better. Neither happened. Instead, the cleanup finally agreed to by DOE, EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) in 2003 allowed in the top 3 feet of soil a quantity of plutonium up to 1,250 times average background levels, with much more allowed in soil at a depth of 3 to 6 feet and no limit on the quantity of plutonium allowed in soil below 6 feet.
  6. Dollars and date, not public health, drove the cleanup DOE and its contractor, Kaiser-Hill, made a secret deal with Congress to cleanup and close Rocky Flats by a fixed date for a fixed sum. Tailoring the cleanup to fit these limits, they rejected appeals from some in the public willing to seek more funds for a more thorough cleanup. Of the $7 billion allotted to close the site by December 2006, no more than $473 million (about 7%) could be spent on actual remediation of the environment. Kaiser-Hill received $560 million for its work.
  7. Local people rejected both the cleanup and recreation at the wildlife refuge Of the individuals and organizations that commented on the final Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement adopted in June 2003, 85.6% rejected the plan as inadequate, due mainly to the plutonium being left behind. 81% of those who commented on FWS plans to open the wildlife refuge to public recreation opposed the idea. These comments are part of the public record.
  8. Plutonium not stable in the environment EPA and CDPHE claim that there is no pathway by which plutonium left in soil at Rocky Flats can reach human subjects. This is refuted by a 1996 study in which ecologist Shawn Smallwood shows that 18 species of burrowing animals present at Rocky Flats dig down to as much as 16 feet, constantly redistributing soil and its contents. In a wholly random way they bring buried plutonium to the surface where tiny particles can be transported near and far by the wind common at the site and made available to be internalized by unwitting humans. In any given year burrowing animals disturb 10 to 12% of surface soil on the site. Though this study was done in 1996, EPA and CDPHE ignored it when in 2003 they approved the final cleanup plan for Rocky Flats.
  9. The cleanup does not protect the most vulnerable, especially children The “risk-based cleanup” at Rocky Flats was calculated to protect a wildlife refuge worker, that is, a physically active adult in good health. The cleanup was not designed to protect the very young, the very old, the infirm. FWS expects children to visit the wildlife refuge. The human child, without question, is the most vulnerable to plutonium exposure of all creatures, because a child is likely to stir up dust, to eat dirt, to breathe in gasps, or to scrape a knee or elbow, all ways of taking plutonium into the body. Once internalized, the material integrates with the child’s tissue development and wreaks havoc within the child’s body for the duration of her or his life. Playing with plutonium is a dangerous proposition.
  10. EPA and CDPHE mislead the public when they say Rocky Flats is “safe” The National Academy of Sciences report on Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (2006) affirms that exposure to any level of ionizing radiation is potentially harmful. In 2004 British researchers concluded that cancer risk from exposure to very low doses of plutonium may be ten or more times more dangerous than allowed by existing official standards for permissible exposure.
  11. EPA and CDPHE oppose informed consent for visitors to the wildlife refuge State Representative Wes McKinley was foreman of the grand jury that spent nearly 3 years reviewing evidence of alleged environmental lawbreaking at Rocky Flats collected by the FBI in its 1989 raid on the plant. 65 cartons of documents from this investigation remain sealed in the Denver federal courthouse; they were never examined by EPA and CDPHE, regulators of the Rocky Flats cleanup. McKinley is under court order not to reveal what he learned about conditions at Rocky Flats, but he objects to opening the wildlife refuge to the public. His efforts to get informed consent regarding risk at the refuge for potential refuge visitors were opposed by the very agencies that made no effort to determine whether the 65 cartons in the federal courthouse contain data pertinent to the Rocky Flats cleanup.
  12. Genetic effects of plutonium exposure are poorly understood In a 2000 study Diethard Tautz said genetic effects of radiation exposure on a given species of wildlife may not show up until generations later when harm is irreversible. Ecologist Shawn Smallwood found that no study of genetic effects on wildlife has been done at Rocky Flats or any other DOE site. Any harm to wildlife at Rocky Flats will not be confined to the bounds of the site. Deer from the site have been shown to have plutonium in their bodies. Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller, writing about humans in 1964, reached a conclusion very similar to that of Tautz, namely, that the effect of radiation exposure may not be apparent for several generations.

For documentation and more information, see Plutonium and People Don’t Mix at http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/leroy-moore



Jock Cobb, MD, pioneer activist on Rocky Flats dies at age 96

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats on June 27, 2016 at 1:35 am

When I learned about Rocky Flats in 1979 I joined people occupying the railroad tracks entering the facility because I wanted to stop production of nuclear bombs and bring an end to a possible nuclear war. But very soon I attended a seminar on radiation health effects, done by Jock Cobb of the CU medical school. He was a spectacular teacher, able to make complex matters clear even as he presented the moral necessity of action. I learned from him to pay attention to the public health and environmental sides of the nuclear weapons enterprise.

Jock Cobb just died. The link to a Denver Post article about him is http://www.denverpost.com/2016/06/25/john-c-cobb-obituary/

I earlier posted to this blog an article describing Jock Cobb’s effort to study the effect of plutonium in the gonads. He collected samples but they were never analyzed, as you can see from reading the following: Rocky Flats plutonium in the gonads? Samples collected but never analyzed — entry dated August 11, 2014.


Why is there a statue of a horse out here?

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on June 17, 2016 at 6:01 am

Have you seen the horse? It’s a tribute to and a warning about Rocky Flats. Check it out.

Go to  http://nationalenvironmentalpro.com/cold-war-horse/





Science Compromised in the Cleanup of Rocky Flats

In Environment, Human rights, Jefferson Parkway, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on June 11, 2016 at 12:16 am

Science Compromised in the Cleanup of Rocky Flats, By LeRoy Moore, Ph.D.

Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (October 2006; as revised, July 18, 2013)

“Science-based cleanup of Rocky Flats,” an article published in Physics Today in September 2006, describes the work of a team of scientists who spent several years researching how and to what extent plutonium and other radionuclides migrate in the Rocky Flats environment. Their study, the Actinide Migration Evaluation (AME), produced information used in setting the cleanup levels for the badly contaminated Rocky Flats site. Accordingly, David L. Clark and his co-authors claim for themselves and their colleagues on the AME team a big share of the credit for the cleanup of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant that was completed in 2005.[1] Their claim is apt, but the “science-based cleanup” they celebrate is, as this article demonstrates, an instance of science compromised.

The article by Clark et al. describes the methods and results of the AME project. It is a story familiar to me, because I co-chaired a panel that provided citizen oversight of the AME work. The story as they tell it contains omissions and problems, starting with the scandal with which the AME project began.

A momentous finding

The AME work was preceded by the totally unexpected detection in the exceedingly wet spring of 1995 of substantial movement of plutonium in the near surface soil (vadose zone) at Rocky Flats. This surprising find was made with real-time remotely controlled monitoring instruments set up in the soil on the site by environmental engineer M. Iggy Litaor. An adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, Litaor had for some years worked as a senior soil scientist at Rocky Flats studying actinides in the environment. Over the years he had published more than a dozen articles reporting his findings in leading technical journals.

Litaor estimated that on May 17, 1995, the wettest day of that very wet spring, a quantity of plutonium ranging from 10 millionths of a curie to one-half of a curie[2] was “remobilized overland” and traveled more than 100 meters down slope. This finding, he said, “challenges the framework of the suggested accelerated cleanup,” because the plutonium migration he detected “was not envisioned under any environmental condition or hydrogeochemical modeling scenarios considered for Rocky Flats.” Indeed, his finding countered the dogma heard often by the public from Rocky Flats officials, namely, that once in the environment plutonium stays in place. Litaor himself had previously supported this concept, until, as he admitted in a public forum, “Mother Nature” proved him wrong.[3]


When Kaiser-Hill took over as cleanup contractor at Rocky Flats on July 1, 1995, barely five weeks after Litaor’s surprising finding, one of the company’s first acts was to terminate him. Asked at the October 1995 Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board meeting if Litaor had been dismissed, Kaiser-Hill official Christine S. Dayton said, “No.” At its next meeting the board learned that she had not told the truth. In response to public outcry over Litaor’s dismissal, Kaiser-Hill retained his services for a brief period, but by this time his research team of graduate students had been dispersed and his field instruments dismantled. Meanwhile, Ms. Dayton was named director of the Actinide Migration Evaluation, a post she would hold for the nearly ten years of the project’s existence.

The foregoing was only the most visible part of the scandal surrounding Litaor and the creation of the AME. Behind the scenes during its first weeks as the new cleanup contractor Kaiser-Hill commissioned a review of Litaor’s work by five scientists, among them Bruce D. Honeyman of the Colorado School of Mines and David L. Clark from DOE’s Los Alamos Lab (lead author of “science-based cleanup” article). Their 33-page critique of Litaor’s work faulted him most pointedly for failing “to address the question of the chemical form, i.e., speciation, of plutonium in the environment.” Speciation is the study of the range of chemical forms an element like plutonium may take under varied conditions (e.g., whether liquid, solid or gas). Clark and Honeyman, who are speciation specialists, in effect were criticizing Litaor for not being themselves. Both, not incidentally, were soon identified as members of the new AME group.[4]

Litaor learned about this dismissive review of his work, which was never made available to the public, only after it was completed. In a written response he said that the main objectives of his work had been “characterization and quantification of the physical processes that control plutonium mobilization.” It was with a “real-time in-situ remotely controlled monitoring system” that he observed the “unexpected phenomenon” of plutonium migration under exceptional meteorological conditions, something that would never have been achieved with speciation analyses that in his view “merely study the beaker environment.”[5]

Over a period of at least two years after termination of his Rocky Flats contract, Professor Litaor, having returned to his native Israel to assume an academic post, sought crucial geological data needed to complete a detailed account of his plutonium-migration findings. Neither Kaiser-Hill nor the DOE would provide him with what he sought. I and others petitioned the site on his behalf, to no effect. A full report on Litaor’s important finding thus has never been published. The very wet spring of 1995, when Litaor detected plutonium migration, has been called the equivalent of a hundred-year storm. This means that, on average, the conditions he encountered are likely to be repeated once each century. Due to Litaor’s dismissal, how it happened and how he was subsequently treated, the AME work celebrated by Clark et al. began under a cloud. For some in the engaged public this cloud never lifted.

The question of plutonium solubility

As the AME team began their work, they faced a barrage of questions about plutonium migration at Rocky Flats. Clark et al. say in their article that “researchers hypothesized” that migration happened because plutonium “was soluble in surface and groundwater,” but “the initial models of contaminant transport – ones based on soluble forms of plutonium – were flawed and indefensible.” They never, however, identify the “researchers” or the “models” to which they refer. Litaor, in his numerous public presentations regarding his finding of plutonium migration, never spoke of solubility.

In the context of the AME work, the only person to claim that plutonium moved in the Rocky Flats environment because it became soluble was AME team member Bruce Honeyman of the Colorado School of Mines. At a public meeting on August 20, 1997, he said he had concluded from his speciation studies that up to 90% of the plutonium in the environment at Rocky Flats could become soluble. Asked if this meant it would eventually migrate off the site, he said, “Yes, but additional work is needed to determine the rate of movement.”[6] He never spoke this way again, and efforts to get him to explain what he had said were brushed aside by those involved with the AME project. Had his exact words not been recorded in minutes of that particular meeting, they might be forgotten by all but a few people with very acute hearing. Honeyman soon stopped attending AME public meetings.[7]


In an unprecedented 1996 study, ecologist Shawn Smallwood revealed how burrowing animals redistribute contaminants left in the soil at Rocky Flats. He identified 18 species of burrowing creatures at Rocky Flats, all constantly moving soil and any adhering contaminants. They take surface material down and bring buried material up. Major diggers, like pocket gophers, harvester ants, and prairie dogs, burrow to depths of 10 to 16 feet and disturb very large areas on the surface, while coyotes, badgers, rabbits, and other animals move additional soil. Plants loosen soil and create passages animals can use. Smallwood estimated that burrowing animals disturb 11 to 12% of surface soil at Rocky Flats in any given year. Undisturbed soils do not exist at this site. The plutonium, which at Rocky Flats is only partially remediated down to a depth of 6 feet and is not remediated at all below that level, is being constantly re-circulated in the environment. What is now buried is likely some day to be brought to the surface for wider dispersal by wind, water, fires or other means.[8] In his research Smallwood, who is located in Davis, CA, went onto the Rocky Flats site on three separate occasions in the summer and fall of 1996, each time accompanied by Rocky Flats personnel. He finished his report before the end of that year and two years later published results in a technical journal.[9] But his findings were totally ignored by the AME scientists. Their final report issued in 2004 states that data on highly mobile species that might transport actinides “are not available and would be difficult and in some cases logistically nearly impossible to obtain.”[10] Smallwood’s study had been completed eight years earlier.

Uptake of plutonium in grass

An eleven-year study done at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina demonstrates that plutonium in subsurface sediments at that site moved upward from the buried source material. The authors of this study conclude “that the upward movement was largely the result of invading grasses taking up the plutonium and translocating it upward,” producing a “measurable accumulation of plutonium on the ground surface.”[11] By contrast, the AME study at Rocky Flats concluded that “uptake into plant . . . tissues is minor.”[12] The Rocky Flats site consists for the most part of prairie grassland. If grass at the Savannah River Site brings plutonium up to the surface, should we not expect something similar to happen at Rocky Flats? Very likely the grasses at Rocky Flats have roots that run deeper into the soil than those at Savannah River, due to the comparably drier climate at Rocky Flats. The question whether the grass at Rocky Flats brings plutonium to the surface presents an uncertainty worth detailed exploration.

The AME conclusion: Plutonium “relatively immobile”

Despite the never explained interlude with Honeyman about plutonium solubility, the AME researchers concluded in their final report that virtually all plutonium in the Rocky Flats environment is in the form of non-soluble plutonium-oxide particles that can be moved by wind or water, that is, by the physical processes of erosion and sediment transport. This conclusion, based mainly on computer modeling, is very close to what Litaor had said a decade earlier. But the AME researchers differed strongly from Litaor as well as the from the findings of Smallwood and the grass research at the Savannah River Site in concluding that plutonium and americium left behind at Rocky Flats “are relatively immobile in the soil and groundwater because of their low solubility and tendency to sorb [attach] onto soil.”[13]

On the basis of this conclusion, Clark and his colleagues can rightly claim that the AME contributed substantively to the final legally binding Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement (RFCA) adopted in June 2003. RFCA requires cleanup of concentrations of plutonium and americium in the top three feet of soil in excess of 50 picocuries per gram (a picocurie is one trillionth of a curie). But it allows concentrations of 1,000 to 7,000 picocuries per gram at levels 3 to 6 feet below the surface, and puts no limit on the quantity allowed below 6 feet. In adopting these standards for cleanup, DOE and the regulators relied on the AME conclusion that plutonium left in soil at Rocky Flats would remain “relatively immobile” and thus posed no significant public-health risk.[14]

But plutonium at Rocky Flats does move

The AME team’s conclusion of inconsequential plutonium migration at Rocky Flats flies in the face of one of their own reports. This report maintains that cleanup of plutonium in the soil at Rocky Flats even to citizen-recommended 10 picocuries per gram,[15] rather than the 50+ actually adopted, would result in conditions of either a 10-year or a 100-year storm in failure at certain downstream areas to meet the Colorado State standard for plutonium in surface water of 0.15 picocuries per liter.[16] This contradictory report, though it was part of the AME work, is not even cited in the final summary report of the AME project.[17]

Twice in 1997, before this wayward report was written, the quantity of plutonium in Walnut Creek at the downstream boundary of the Rocky Flats site exceeded the state standard.[18] This occurred on several subsequent occasions. The exact source of this plutonium was never identified. The problem is being handled with engineered controls that divert and dilute the water. Can maintenance of such controls be expected to outlast the plutonium?

Research done elsewhere counters the AME “relatively immobile” conclusion

The AME conclusion that migration of plutonium oxide at Rocky Flats would be insignificant is countered by findings at other locations. A report on plutonium transport at the site of the then-proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository asserts that plutonium “in oxidized form . . . can be quite mobile.”[19] Important recent research has focused on the propensity of minuscule plutonium oxide particles to attach to submicrometer-size colloids consisting of organic or inorganic compounds. Such colloids can transport the plutonium considerable distances in groundwater. Annie B. Kersting et al. reported that plutonium released from an underground bomb test at the Nevada Test Site moved at least 1.3 kilometers (0.8 mile) in 30 years, with “colloidal groundwater migration” the likely means of transport.[20] A recent study concludes that colloidal transport accounts for the migration of plutonium more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in about 55 years in the subsurface environment at the Mayak facility in Russia. Other studies show similar long-distance plutonium transport in the subsurface environment at DOE’s Los Alamos and Savannah River sites. Kersting says regarding the Mayak findings, “we need to get away from this idea that plutonium doesn’t move, because it does.”[21]

Mayak and Savannah River are very wet environments, the Nevada Test Site and Los Alamos very dry ones. Rocky Flats resembles the latter two more than the former. If plutonium attached to colloids can move long distances quickly at all these locations, cannot the same thing happen at Rocky Flats? The AME team thinks not, because, in Honeyman’s words, “the very properties that make some compounds good candidates for colloidal transport – low solubility and high particle reactivity – limit the amount of contaminants that can be transported.”[22]

Another location where plutonium may be migrating rapidly is at DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory. From 1954 until 1988 large volumes of waste highly contaminated with plutonium were sent from Rocky Flats to the Idaho facility where the waste was dumped in shallow pits on the assumption that many millennia would elapse before the plutonium could percolate down the 600 feet to the Snake River Plain aquifer, the principal water source for large agricultural areas in Idaho. However, a graph published in a National Academy of Sciences report shows dramatic changes in estimates of how long it will take for the plutonium to reach the aquifer, from an estimate of 80,000 years in 1965 to one of 30 years in 1997.[23] Asked about this, the AME researchers said two things: First, they assert but don’t demonstrate that the National Academy’s graph “was developed to refer to contaminants in general, and not plutonium in particular.” The burden of proof rests with them. Second, they say that knowledge about actinide migration at INL is deficient because that site has not had the benefit of the kind of work done at Rocky Flats by the AME project.[24]

The AME group’s claim at being at the cutting edge of science is refuted by the ongoing work of Annie B. Kersting, whose finding of rapid transport of plutonium in groundwater at the Nevada Test Site was mentioned above. Since reporting that finding in 1999, Kersting, a geochemist at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, has intensified her research on actinide migration because of its significance at various sites worldwide, including Rocky Flats. According to a recent article about her work, it is driven by the recognition that, despite very low concentrations of actinides transported from the original source, their “long half-lives combined with their high toxicity make them of particular concern.” Thanks to her team’s research on plutonium, “the most perplexing element on the periodic table is slowly losing some of its mystery about how it travels underground faster and further than anyone at first expected.”[25]

What about the long-term?

Given the 24,110 year half life of plutonium-239 and the danger it poses if minuscule particles are taken into the body, the cleanup at Rocky Flats, based as it is on the work of the AME team and done with their imprimatur, looks like a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The AME researchers, with all their confidence in modeling, made no effort to predict conditions at Rocky Flats 500 years from now, much less 10,000 or 100,000 years from now.


The most persistent criticism of the AME work is that the researchers relied mainly on computer modeling to reach their conclusion that plutonium left in the environment at Rocky Flats will be relatively immobile. Future sampling could show whether the modeling was correct or flawed. But adequate future sampling is not likely. The affected public thus may never know the validity or invalidity of the AME work. The consequences are not minor, since the government intends to allow public recreation on the Rocky Flats site.[26]

The authors of “Science-based cleanup of Rocky Flats” write with certitude about realms of knowing that are replete with uncertainties. People of the future, whether near or distant, are not well served by the kind of cleanup done at Rocky Flats, even if it is “science-based.” In a situation like that at Rocky Flats, what is the measure of good science? What would responsible science look like? One doesn’t have to be a certified scientist to venture an answer to this question.



[1] David L. Clark, David R. Janecky, and Leonard J. Lane, “Science-based cleanup of Rocky Flats,” Physics Today (September 2006), pp. 34-40.

[2] One curie is the quantity of any radioactive material that emits 37 billion bursts of radiation per second.

[3] M. Iggy Litaor, The Hydrogeochemistry of Pu in Soils of Rocky Flats, Colorado: Summary,” Public Presentation, Denver, May 15, 1996; and Litaor, “Open Letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concerning its draft plan for the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge,” March 10. 2004.

[4] “Technical and Peer Review” of M. Iggy Litaor’s work by Bruce D. Honeyman et al. (Subcontract No. KH 353044ED3), September 22, 1995.

[5] M. Iggy Litaor to Bruce D. Honeyman, November 1, 1995.

[6] Record of Meeting Notes, Actinide Migration Status Report, August 20, 1997.

[7] This author once sent a letter to Mr. Honeyman seeking documentation of misleading remarks he had made in an AME public meeting. A reply came not from him but from John Rampe, a DOE official, saying that in the future any concerns regarding things said by AME team members should be addressed not to them but to Mr. Rampe or to Christine Dayton, the AME supervisor at Kaiser-Hill. The documentation I sought was thus never provided, and Mr. Honeyman was allowed to duck his responsibility to be forthcoming with the public.

[8] Shawn Smallwood, “Soil Bioturbation and Wind Affect Fate of Hazardous Materials that Were Released at the Rocky Flats Plant, Colorado” (November 23, 1996), Report submitted for plaintiff’s counsel in Cook v. Rockwell International, United States District Court, District of Colorado, No. 90-CV-00181; see also the transcript of Smallwood’s appearance in court in this case, pp. 3912-4130. Arnie Heller, “Plutonium Hitches a Ride on Subsurface Particles,” Science & Technology Review, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, October/November 2011, pp. 16-18.

[9] Smallwood et al., “Animal Burrowing Attributes Affecting Hazardous Waste Management,” Environmental Management, vol. 22, no. 6, 1998, pp. 831–847.

[10] Kaiser-Hill Co., Actinide Migration Evaluation Pathway Analysis Summary Report, ER-108 (April 2004), p. 23.

[11] D. I. Kaplan et al., “Upward Movement of Plutonium to Surface Sediments During an 11-Year Field Study, SRNL-STI-2010-00029, January 25, 2010. http://sti.srs.gov/fulltext/SRNL-STI-2010-00029.pdf

[12] Kaiser-Hill Co., Actinide Migration Evaluation Pathway Analysis Summary Report, ER-108 (April 2004), p. 28; see p. 24.

[13] Kaiser-Hill, AME Pathway Analysis Summary Report, ER-108 (April 2004), p. 28.

[14] For a critique of the cleanup including the risk calculation on which it is based, see my “Rocky Flats: The bait and switch cleanup,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January/February 2005), pp. 50-57. http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/leroy-moores-blog/papers-by-leroy-moore-phd-2/

[15] Establishing the cleanup level for plutonium in soil at 10 picocuries per gram or less was recommended in a report prepared for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center by Arjun Makhijani and Sriram Gopal, “Setting Cleanup Standards to Protect Future Generations: The Scientific Basis of the Subsistence Farmer Scenario and Its Application to the Estimation of Radionuclide Soil Actions Levels for Rocky Flats” (Takoma Park, MD: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, December, 2001). http://www.ieer.org/reports/rocky/toc.html

[16] Kaiser-Hill Co., Report on Soil Erosion and Surface Water Sediment Transport Modeling for the Actinide Migration Evaluation at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, 00-RF-01823/DOE-00-93258 (August 2000), p. 51.

[17] Kaiser-Hill, AME Pathway Analysis Summary Report, ER-108 (April 2004).

[18] J. E. Law, Rocky Mountain Remediation Services, L.L.C., Memo to D. C. Shelton, K-H. Environmental Compliance, dated August 18, 1997, Re: Recent elevated plutonium and americium in water at RFCA point of compliance, Walnut Creek at Indiana Street.

[19] Yucca Mountain Site Description, TDR-CRW-G5-000001, Rev 01 ICN 01 – 10. Factors Affecting Radionuclide Transport (http://www.ymp.gov/documents/m2nu_a/sect10/sect10-01.htm).

[20] A. B. Kersting et al., “Migration of plutonium in ground water at the Nevada Test Site,” Nature, vol. 397, no. 7 (7 January 1999).

[21] Alexander P. Novikov et al., “Colloid Transport of Plutonium in the Far-Field of the Mayak Production Association, Russia,” SCIENCE, vol. 314 (27 October 2006); notes 6 and 8 of this article reference reports of similar long-distance plutonium migration at DOE’s Los Alamos and Savannah River sites; note 10 suggests greatly increased public health risk from such migration at Yucca Mountain. Kersting is quoted in David Biello, “Colloids in Russia: Have Plutonium, Will Travel,” Scientific American.Com, November 10, 2006.

[22] Bruce D. Honeyman, “Colloidal culprits in contamination,” Nature, vol. 397, no. 7 (7 January 1999), quoted in Christine S. Dayton, Kaiser-Hill, to LeRoy Moore, March 13, 2003 (03-RF-00441), with attachment from AME Advisory Group (CSD-004-03).

[23] For the graph and discussion, see Michelle Boyd and Arjun Makhijani, “Poison in the Vadose Zone: Threats to the Snake River Plain Aquifer from Migrating Nuclear Waste” http://www.ieer.org/sdafiles/vol_10/10-1/poison.html.

[24] Christine S. Dayton, Kaiser-Hill, to LeRoy Moore (03-RF-00441), March 13, 2003, with attachment (CSD-004-03).

[25] Arnie Heller, “Plutonium Hitches a Ride on Subsurface Particles,” Science & Technology Review, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, October/November 2011, pp. 16-18.

[26] After completion of the Rocky Flats cleanup, about seven square miles (roughly three quarters of the site) were transferred from the DOE to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to manage as a wildlife refuge. FWS intends eventually to open the refuge for public recreation. For details on why this should not happen, see the four brief parts of chapter 8 of my “Plutonium and People Don’t Mix,” online at http://media.wix.com/ugd/cff93e_ba3aba3546e545278e4de4d8b3990c57.pdf http://media.wix.com/ugd/cff93e_a1b30d0398e943b0b92bb758a938f391.pdf http://media.wix.com/ugd/cff93e_2ad82029215b4aa6a63ab37cc0466a5f.pdf http://media.wix.com/ugd/cff93e_109f46d1cf6d46a490cb8bd2e56e4519.pdf

My comments on the $375 million settlement with Dow & Rockwell

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Rocky Flats on May 23, 2016 at 3:49 am

Earlier I posted John Aguilar’s Denver Post May 19, 2016, article about the $375 million settlement of the lawsuit against Rocky Flats operators Dow Chemical and Rockwell International. Here I will add three comments.

  1. This case was filed in 1990 and the verdict by the jury finding Dow and Rockwell guilty was reached in 2005. It’s been more than a quarter-century in the making, a long time to pay the downwind affected people, some of whom have died by now. Even with the settlement made, affected people will not receive compensation for a couple of years.
  2. It’s regretful that the judge in the case restricted it solely to harm to property value. When the case was originally filed, the plaintiffs sought compensation for decline of property value but also for harm to health. The judge unfortunately dropped the latter from the case as it went forward. At DOE’s Fermald, Ohio, plant that processed uranium for bombs, as a result of a citizen’s lawsuit, DOE paid for medical monitoring of affected people for 18 years, saving some because health problems were found early and relieving others who found that their health had not been harmed by any possible exposure. I was told by one of the official managing this medical surveillance that DOE personnel said they would never again pay for medical monitoring for people whose health may be endangered by exposure to toxins released from DOE plants.
  3. I am grateful that those in the designated area downwind of Rocky Flats will finally be compensated for loss to value of their property to the tune of $375 million. But neither Dow nor Rockwell will pay a cent of this. The money will come from the DOE, which means from the taxpayers. You and I will pay people for the carelessness of two companies operating the Rocky Flats plant. They and other companies working for the DOE nuclear weapons program are indemnified for any harm they do.

Dan Berrigan memorial, Denver

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Rocky Flats on May 23, 2016 at 1:34 am

Yesterday, May 21, I went to the chapel at Regis University, a Jesuit school in Denver, for a memorial service for Daniel Berrigan, the activist priest who died a couple of weeks ago. The service was beautiful, not a Catholic mass, but a wide-ranging time of words and music, with short readings from his poems, writings and talks. I saw old friends I hadn’t seen for years.

In the mid-80s a group that I was part of invited Dan to Boulder to give a talk. While he was here Ina Russell, Brian Mahan and I took him to Rocky Flats, 9 miles south of Boulder. We stopped the car at a high point from which you could see the skyline of downtown Denver 16 miles away, three nearby downstream lakes that were contaminated with plutonium and tritium released from the plant, the mountains just a short distance to the west, with the buildings of the plant about two miles from where we stood. Pointing, I told him, “There’s Rocky Flats.” He quickly said, “But it isn’t flat.” “Yes, but it’s rocky,” I replied. He looked at me and said, “Ah, a rocky road. Are you up to it?” “We’ll see,” I said. Then we drove into town and went to a restaurant where he ordered vodka.

$375 million settlement reached in homeowner lawsuit against Rocky Flats

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Plutonium, Rocky Flats on May 20, 2016 at 2:47 am

By John Aguilar, The Denver Post, 5-19-2016

A $375 million settlement has been reached in a long-running class action lawsuit between operators of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant and thousands of homeowners who lived downwind of the facility.

The settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, brings to an end a 26-year legal saga that began when homeowners living east of Rocky Flats accused the plant’s operators, Rockwell International Corp. and Dow Chemical Co., of devaluing their properties due to plutonium releases from the plant.

The suit, which includes as many as 15,000 homeowners in an area encompassing neighborhoods surrounding Standley Lake, was first filed in 1990.

“Both sides are satisfied with the settlement,” Merrill Davidoff, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Denver Post Thursday morning.

Davidoff confirmed the settlement amount.

According to court filings, the property class includes all those who “as of June 7, 1989,” owned property in the affected area.

Davidoff said final approval of the settlement by a federal judge and establishment of a claims filing process for homeowners could be “months away.”

Rachelle Schikorra, a spokeswoman for Dow Chemical, said her company’s share of the settlement total is $131.25 million.
“The U.S. Department of Energy authorized the settlement, and Dow fully expects to be indemnified for the full cost of the settlement,” she said. “This settlement resolves 26 years of litigation, and Dow believes this settlement is the right decision for the company and its shareholders.”

A spokesman for the DOE had not yet returned a request for comment Thursday morning.

The settlement, which was reached late Wednesday, puts to an end a case — dubbed Cook et al. vs. Rockwell International — that has been through multiple bends and turns in federal court for the past quarter of a century.

In 2006, a jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and a federal judge awarded them $926 million. But in 2010, that award was thrown out by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the jury reached its decision on faulty instructions that incorrectly stated the law.