Activists questioning the thoroughness of the cleanup at the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver say they have found particles of weapons-grade plutonium in air samples taken near the site. Part of the site is a national wildlife refuge that is slated to open for public recreation.
The federal Department of Energy declared in 2005 that its decontamination of the Rocky Flats facility was complete, after a 10-year effort that cost US$7 billion (although the DOE originally thought the project would take 65 years and US$37 billion). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to allow public recreation at a national wildlife refuge established in 2007 on part of the site.
The samples were collected in April by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, which has criticized the quality of the cleanup and called for increased testing and other safeguards. Plutonium in breathable form was found at two locations near the site of the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant. Their sampling effort responded to repeated refusals of government agencies to sample surface dust at Rocky Flats for plutonium content. What the citizens found with their unofficial project counters U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans to open a big portion of the Rocky Flats site – the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge – to public recreation.
The plutonium contained in a sample collected in open space across the street from the Rocky Flats site was delivered by wind to this location. "The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge should be managed as open space that is closed to the public," Colorado state Rep. Wes McKinley told AOL News. "This is not a good place for our school kids to go on field trips. At the very least, there should be a warning that you may be exposing yourself to plutonium."
“The plutonium found at the open space location was probably deposited there quite recently,“ observed environmentalist LeRoy Moore, who organized the sampling project. “Burrowing animals on the site bring buried plutonium to the surface, and the winds that scour Rocky Flats scatter plutonium particles near and far, with the risk of sending some of it into the lungs of people using Rocky Flats for recreation.”
At least equally significant, according to Moore, is the indoor sample. Hot particles with high concentrations of plutonium were found in dust collected in a crawl space under a house where it had accumulated for 50 years. Specialist Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp., who did the technical analysis of the samples, pointed out that this plutonium laden dust certainly endangered the health of anyone who spent much time in this crawl space.
Moore thinks that within the contaminated area plutonium-laden dust could be present in any indoor space where dust collects, such as in refrigerator coils, ventilation systems, ceiling fans, etc. “Its presence poses a risk to people who occupy, use or work in these indoor spaces,” he stated. “So far as I know, sampling indoor dust for its possible plutonium content has never been previously done in offsite areas around Rocky Flats.”
Kaltofen pointed out that the plutonium present in the two samples was in the form of very tiny particles. Such particles can be inhaled, ingested or taken into the body through an open wound, such as a child’s scraped knee or elbow. For as long as the plutonium is lodged in the body, it continues to bombard surrounding tissue with radiation. This may result in cancer, harm to the immune system or genetic defects that can be passed on to future generations.
“This small sampling project,” Moore observed, “indicates that Rocky Flats is a local hazard forever.”
Sources: Pressconference RMPJC, 4 August 2010 / AOL News, 4 August.
Contact: LeRoy Moore, PhD, environmentalist and consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center,