Hot particles forever

Plutonium is forever
By LeRoy Moore and Robert Del Tredici
Posted: 01/29/2012 01:00:00 AM MST

Whether to build the Jefferson Parkway or to turn Rocky Flats into a playground, the determining factor should not be commercial or residential development. The determining factor should be hot particles of plutonium.

A hot particle of plutonium is one that can lodge in air sacs of a lung or be moved via blood elsewhere in the organism. Wherever it resides in the body it irradiates surrounding tissue. A single particle of plutonium can damage more than 10,000 cells within its range.

Nobel chemist Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium in 1941, called it “fiendishly toxic, even in small amounts.” Physicist Jeremy Bernstein recently declared plutonium “the world’s most dangerous element.”

In 2004, well before U.S. Fish and Wildlife received most of the site of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory to manage as a wildlife refuge, it decided to open the future refuge for public recreation. Never mind that 81 percent of parties commenting on the plan rejected public access. In December the agency made a second decision to allow construction of the Jefferson Parkway along the plutonium-contaminated eastern edge of Rocky Flats.

Implementing the highway decision has been delayed, perhaps stopped, by lawsuits brought by the towns of Superior and Golden. It’s a safe bet that if the parkway or playground decisions are implemented, future generations will curse us for it. For people will inevitably arrive at an understanding of plutonium dangers that today is not yet broadly shared.

Those promoting the parkway and playground are ill informed about the long-term hazards of plutonium. Federal and state agencies backing these projects base their support on assurances of a nuclear establishment intent on perpetuating itself.

The blindness regarding plutonium on the part of otherwise savvy people is reminiscent of attitudes toward germs in the early 19th century. Some few realized that invisible entities called germs existed and could cause deadly diseases, but many scoffed. By the end of the century, however, the reality of germs and their relation to disease had become common knowledge.

Plutonium particles in the soil at Rocky Flats will one way or another, sooner or later, come into people’s lungs and lives, since, with a half-life of 24,000 years, it poses a radiation hazard essentially forever. Minute particles much smaller than germs get brought to the surface by burrowing animals, incautious humans, turbulent geology and extreme weather. Such particles can be carried near and far by the wind and inhaled by unsuspecting people, including children, the most vulnerable. Once inside the body, plutonium does its damage.

The late Edward Martell, NCAR radiochemist, pointed out as early as 1970 that the radioactivity from plutonium dust particles at Rocky Flats is “millions of times more intense than that from naturally occurring radioactive dust particles (uranium) of the same size. Minute amounts . . . are sufficient to cause cancer.”

Martell maintained that standards for permissible exposure to plutonium are at least 200 times too lenient. He called for the appointment of independent researchers to develop far more stringent standards. This has yet to happen. When in 1983 he heard that antinuclear activists planned to encircle Rocky Flats, he warned: No children or women of childbearing age should go near the place.

By now much is known about plutonium, though some uncertainty persists. In 2008 the National Academy of Sciences faulted the EPA for how it handles scientific uncertainty. Too often it treats uncertainty as indicating the absence of a problem rather than the presence of a problem needing deeper study. Those who completed the Superfund cleanup of Rocky Flats in 2005 acknowledged leaving behind an unknown quantity of plutonium. Without referring to the enormous uncertainties this entailed, government agencies declared the site safe. And they have opposed efforts to have signs posted warning people that visiting the wildlife refuge may be hazardous. For them, is an informed public more dangerous than plutonium itself?

Several countries, especially in Europe, apply the Precautionary Principle to potentially harmful environmental issues. The Precautionary Principle holds that if a proposed action poses a possible risk, the appropriate response is to step back and not take that risk. Caution should prevail over carelessness.

The official response to plutonium in the soil at Rocky Flats has so far been one of carelessness rather than caution. But it is not too late to let caution be our guide. We recognized some time ago that we could not afford to ignore germs. Later we saw that we must avoid asbestos particles at all costs. And rather recently we have learned to shun second-hand smoke. It is now high time for us to realize that nobody needs parkways or playgrounds on land contaminated with unknown quantities of hot plutonium particles.

LeRoy Moore is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center; Robert Del Tredici, a resident of Montreal, is the foremost photographer of the nuclear age.



LeRoy Moore at the southeast corner of the Rocky Flats site on a windy day, June 17. 2011. The route of the proposed Jefferson Parkway traverses the location where he stands. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge is immediately behind him. Photo by Robert Del Tredici.

  1. What a great summary: “[plutonium] brought to the surface by burrowing animals, incautious humans, turbulent geology and extreme weather.” The potential problems are more likely with the 10th or 100th redevelopment plan than this first one. But, without a sustained, vigorous, open and informed dialogue, we risk losing track that there was ever a residual hazard there at all. The options are not good, nee’ awful. “Complete” cleanup at most sites is infeasible. Yet, we do not know exactly how to keep track of and manage the residual contamination from a less than complete cleanup. The issues include monitoring, maintenance, information management, community involvement, research and development and funding, and will challenge all of our wits and democratic principles. These issues are a challenge we are truly kicking way down the road to generations yet unborn. Your Op-Ed is a good contribution from someone who fought in the Cold War and the first battles of the post-Cold War. Bully for you. I hope it is read widely and helps fuel a long-term debate on how to deal with long-term stewardship.

  2. From 1961-1981 I raised my family in the “questionable” contaminated area roughly 10 miles downwind ESE of Rocky Flats, in the Shaw Heights area of Westminster. I never knew to what extent of radiation my family was living with. So far as I know at this time, only one daughter may have been affected by this radiation. She has Lupus and has developed other auto-immune diseases. Unfortunately she worked 1 year, 2001 or 2002, at Rocky Flats, as an administrative assistant during that “cleanup” session. I wonder now, if or when, my other two children and two of my grandchildren may also be victims of plutonium radiation.

    • Hello Mary McBride:

      Ten miles from the site would put you and your family in an area where there certainly could have been exposure, though much less likely than if you were half that distance from the plant. Unfortunately, there has never been a program to monitor the health of residents in areas contaminated by Rocky Flats. There have never been any actual health studies of such people, and of course no one was keeping records on who might be exposed to what. Things were better for workers at the facility, but if your daughter was not working in one of the buildings recognized as having contaminants of concern, she very likely never had to wear a radiation monitor or to experience routine examination. I hope for your sake that your other two children and grandchildren never come down with illnesses that are possibly due to contaminants released from Rocky Flats.

      With every good wish, LeRoy Moore

  3. I am very concerned about myself and my children. My brother & I were concieved while our Father was working out at Rocky Flats. I was 9 mths old when the ’57 fire and 12 yrs with the next fire in 1969. My Dad was one of the confirmed contaminated employees, and was scrubbed. I have had many strange illness’ and have multiple sensitivities. Could he have brought home plutonium from the plant?

    • Hello Sue Travers:

      Where did you live in these growing-up years? It’s certainly likely that you could have been exposed to plutonium released into the off-site environment from the Rocky Flats plant, since, in addition to the major fires to which you refer, there were other accidents and small quantities of plutonium were being routinely released all the time. It’s also possible that your father brought some plutonium into the home. If he was scrubbed down at work, as you say, it was known at the plant that he had been exposed and they did what they could to minimize any resultant harm. While workers like your father were routinely tested for possible exposure, no one tested those off the site who may one way or another have also been exposed, especially if they lived or worked in downwind areas. I’m afraid there’s no definitive answer to your question. I wish you well.

  4. My first 10 months were in Westminster and then 24 years in Arvada. Is there anything I should or could be tested for? What should I tell the doctors? I remember Dad’s urine being tested all the time. Thank you for your concern. I worry about everyone that had no idea what was happening in their lives.

  5. Hello again, Sue Travers:

    In response to your last message, I contacted a physician friend who has paid considerable attention to questions like those you raise about being tested. Here’s his reply:

    Good to hear from you.  As you probably know, plutonium can be reliably measured in a urine sample, even at very low levels. Using these measurements, the total amount of plutonium present in the body can be estimated. Other tests can measure plutonium in soft tissues (body organs) and in feces, bones, and milk.

    Here is a website with more info about testing, although I’m not sure where this can be done locally.  I suspect she could contact her county health department and get some possible options, probably at CU Denver.

    Even if she has some detectable levels of Pu, it will be very challenging (if not impossible) to determine causality between exposure and “multiple sensitivities” and “strange illnesses.”  As you very well know, it’s difficult enough to establish causality between plutonium exposure and such known health consequences as cancers and immune system suppression.

    We’ve got many years ahead of us before we can better understand and more definitively document the relationship between radiation exposure and human illness.
    I hope this proves helpful. As you can see, while a lot is known, probably far more remains unknown.

  6. Hello

    I find this blog to be a great source of information on Rocky Flats and want to thank you for maintaining it.

    WIth regards to the clean-up of Rocky Flats, I wanted more information on: ” Those who completed the Superfund cleanup of Rocky Flats in 2005 acknowledged leaving behind an unknown quantity of plutonium.” Can you tell me what documentation exists to support this?

    Also, I am interested in your thoughts on the impact of recent flooding in the Boulder area and potential contamination seepage from Rocky Flats. I saw a news story on Fox about this. They followed the testing of a few off-site water sources, but all came up clean in the initial round of testing.

    • Hello Rachel:

      Go to RockyFlaatNucleaGuardianship.org and under Articles by LeRoy Moore you will find “Plutonium and People Don’t Mix.” In this paper is a section dealing with the “cleanup” at Rocky Flats. There you will find details about the standards for cleanup of plutonium on the site. Here you can read about the exact levels of plutonium that were left in the soil. I believe this will answer your question.

      Best, LeRoy Moore

  7. Hi Leroy, Guy from the Hemespheres program years ago about the (then proposed) cleanup. Typo above, try: RockyFlatsNuclearGuardianship.Org

    • Hello Guy Erickson: I can’t place you but certainly remember Hemispheres program. I think of Paul Klite often, was with him two days before his death.

      I don’t understand your “Typo above, try.RockyFlatsNuclearGuardianship.Org” Am I missing something?


  8. If this is important to you, please investigate and understand the connection between the Candellas development and the Moffat Expansion Project. Maintained lawns will be necesarry as a buffer for radioactive soils and dust. Consequently, this development can never convert to having arid climate landscaping. When (not if), outdoor use of water is outlawed in this semi-arid environment, this development will have to be abandoned or exempted. Note the 45 day public comment period to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding issuance of the permit began on April 25.

    • Hello Justin:

      You introduce a whole new dimension to the Rocky Flats issue, not simply that houses at Candelas (and other nearby residential developments, like Whisper Creek) are in a contaminated area adjacent to a contaminated site but also the fact that watering to keep contaminated dust down can only work temporarily because at some point the water will no longer be available. Can you tell people how to comment on the proposal to move water from the western sl0pe to this area?

  9. Public feedback on the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Study) is understood to be extremely important in the decision making process. Comments can be mailed or emailed (moffat.eis@usace.army.mil) to the Army Corps of Engineers. Information on how to comment can be found here: http://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsReleases/tabid/1835/Article/23306/moffat-collection-system-project-final-eis-available-for-public-review.aspx

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