Saturday, April 30, 2011

Plutonium: The Jefferson Parkway's biggest problem

By LeRoy Moore
Posted: 04/28/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT

In late January the Directors of the Jefferson Parkway Authority voted to purchase a 3.5-mile-long 300-foot wide strip of land along the eastern edge of the site of the defunct Rocky Flats plant, where the explosive plutonium pits for nuclear warheads had once been made. The act of Congress that turned most of the Rocky Flats site into a wildlife refuge set aside this sliver of land for possible future highway development.

Unfortunately this piece of land is smack in the middle of the most contaminated area at Rocky Flats. In 1970, after public disclosures that highly toxic radioactive plutonium particles had been released from the plant, two specialists from the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Department of Energy) came to Colorado to look for plutonium in the soil over a very large area. They produced a map showing that about 30 square miles of land east and southeast of the Rocky Flats site was contaminated with plutonium (see The proposed Jefferson Parkway passes through heart of this area.

People have many reasons for opposing the Parkway. Some say it isn`t needed, others that it will increase air pollution, escalate traffic on nearby roads, add to the cost of driving even short distances, and foster urban sprawl when we should end this outmoded pattern. But without question the strongest reason to oppose the highway is the public health danger that would be created by constructing a major highway along the contaminated eastern edge of the Rocky Flats site.

Plutonium emits a type of radiation that cannot penetrate skin but that may induce cancer or other ailments if it is inhaled or otherwise taken into the body. In 1997 researchers at Columbia University reported that a single plutonium particle lodged in the body could initiate cancer. A 2006 National Academy of Sciences study on low-dose radiation exposure concluded that any exposure is potentially harmful. Physicist Fritjof Capra stated in 1982 that, because plutonium remains radioactive for so long, it should be isolated from the environment for half-a-million years.

What happened historically at Rocky Flats is precisely the opposite of what Capra advised. From the beginning of production in 1952 until it ended in 1989 tiny plutonium particles were released to the environment by fires, accidents and routine operations. Particles were distributed near and far by the wind common at the site. The site is still contaminated. Those responsible for the "cleanup" done after production ended made no effort to clean the site to the maximum extent possible with existing technology. Indeed, the logic of turning most of the site into a wildlife refuge was to reduce the cost of the "cleanup." An unknown quantity of plutonium was knowingly left in soil on the site.

Plutonium is present in the environment both on and off the Rocky Flats site in the form of particles too small to see but not too small to do harm. Brought to the surface by burrowing animals, anything from ants to badgers, particles may be picked up by the wind and inhaled by someone in the vicinity. Years later this person`s health may be destroyed without the individual knowing why. The most vulnerable creatures are human children. This, the situation that exists now at Rocky Flats, is why U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should never allow public access to the roughly seven square miles of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

A citizen sampling project sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in April 2010 found plutonium in dust collected from crawl space at a house about one mile from the location of the proposed Jefferson Parkway. There is ample reason to conclude that plutonium must be present elsewhere in this area, especially in the soil of the intended route for the Parkway.

Constructing a highway along the downwind edge of the Rocky Flats site would create a far more dangerous situation than the already hazardous one that exists at the site. A major highway cannot be constructed without stirring up clouds and clouds of dust. And much of the dust stirred to build the Jefferson Parkway would be plutonium-laden, which is to say, plutonium in its most dangerous form. There is no justification for creating this unnecessary and incalculable danger for the workers who would construct the road or for the people who live or work nearby or travel in the affected area during the time of construction. The Jefferson Parkway plan should be abandoned.

LeRoy Moore is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.