The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project
By Kathleen Rude
How do you guard against something that you can’t see, smell, taste, hear or feel? How do you convince people of a danger that is detectable only with specialized equipment? This is the immense challenge people face as they try to protect the world from radioactive contamination and radioactive weapons and waste. Concerned citizens in Colorado have an additional problem swirling around them. The radioactivity they are trying to guard against is blowing in the wind.
Welcome to Rocky Flats, a picturesque expanse of open range with a stunning mountain view of Colorado’s Front Range, located just sixteen miles northwest of downtown Denver. The wind here is so extreme at times that it knocks over trailer trucks. Gusts blow up to 100 miles an hour in the direction of Denver. This beautiful and blustery spot has a dark and dangerous past that has forever marred it. The 5,800-acre Rocky Flats area and 20,000 adjacent acres are contaminated with one of the most deadly materials humans have ever created — radioactive plutonium-239. The plutonium at Rocky Flats is not locked up in storage containers or secured in any way. It’s in the soil and water, it’s absorbed by plants and animals, and it’s picked up by the breezes and gets deposited wherever the far-reaching winds are blowing.
From 1952 until 1989, Rocky Flats was the site of a U.S. nuclear weapons plant that produced more than 70,000 plutonium “pits” for nuclear warheads. Improper disposal and storage of highly radioactive materials resulted in extensive contamination of air, water and soil. Several major fires at the plant spread contamination as far as Denver and beyond. The Department of Energy, which oversees Rocky Flats, never informed the public of the radioactive dangers. The contamination was first confirmed by Dr. Edward Martell in 1970, and illegal activities came to light only because the FBI raided the facility in 1989. Rocky Flats never resumed production of plutonium pits. Plant closure and a ten-year partial “clean up” of the site took place between 1996 and 2005.
The Department of Energy wants the public to believe that Rocky Flats is now safe, that there is no risk of radiation exposure, no health risks associated with the site. But the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project, created in 2011, tells a very different story. Rocky Flats is a public and environmental hazard that can never be made safe. The Nuclear Guardians are committed to informing the general public about these dangers and to taking actions to protect people from being exposed. They also are committed to ensuring that future generations know about the radioactive contamination they will inherit.
The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project was founded by three long-time anti-nuclear peace activists in Boulder, CO—LeRoy Moore, Judith Mohling and Christopher Hormel. LeRoy and Judith first began protesting at Rocky Flats in the late 1970s in opposition to nuclear weapons manufacturing. In the process, they learned about the hazards of plutonium and the 1,000 additional carcinogenic chemicals that contaminate the site today. Once the plant closed, they realized that their work had only just begun. Joining forces with Christopher, who had moved to Boulder from Idaho, they created the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project. The group takes its name and its operating mandate from the Nuclear Guardianship Ethic that was first conceived of in 1990 in a study action group convened by Joanna and Fran Macy. (see sidebar.) Of the many watchdog and citizen monitoring groups at nuclear facilities around the world, many of whom are inspired by or in harmony with the Guardianship Ethic, those at Rocky Flats are the only ones who self-identify as nuclear guardians.
What You Can’t See WILL Hurt You
The greatest challenge facing the Nuclear Guardians is convincing the public that Rocky Flats has always been and will continue to be dangerous, despite deceptive governmental assurances to the contrary. Whether in government hearings, public protests or educational meetings, Nuclear Guardians emphasize three key points: there is no safe level of plutonium; radiation and chemical exposure from Rocky Flats has and continues to make people deathly ill; and the woefully inadequate “clean up” at Rocky Flats left the site highly contaminated. Bottom line, what you can’t see will hurt you. And what the government won’t tell you, you really need to know.
This is no safe level of plutonium Plutonium is created from uranium used in nuclear reactors. 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.” It is harmful if inhaled, ingested or otherwise taken into the body, as through an open wound or scrape. Once in the body, plutonium continually irradiates cells and can result in cancer, immune deficiencies, birth defects and other health problems. Plutonium remains radioactive for more than 250,000 years.
Rocky Flats makes people sick Health studies over the years have documented increased incidents of rare cancers, auto-immune diseases and other health conditions in people who worked at Rocky Flats and who lived near the plant. Preliminary results from an on-going health survey found increased incidents of thyroid cancer and rare cancers in residents who had lived or are still living near Rocky Flats. (To find out more about this survey, go to http://rockyflatsdownwinders.com.) Veterinarians in the area are reporting abnormally high incidents of cancers in dogs that recreate in the dog park right next to Rocky Flats. Despite a growing body of evidence about the deadly health affects, the federal government still maintains that Rocky Flats is safe.
Rocky Flats “clean up” left site highly contaminated On the surface, it appears that everything associated with the weapons manufacturing plant has been completely removed. Nothing remains except an open expanse of degraded prairie. Dig a little deeper, literally, and it becomes clear that the “clean up” was anything but. Only the first six feet of soil across the site was addressed, and the cleanup standards for plutonium that were applied to remediation were excessively high (up to 20 times higher than recommended at other sites). Even more troubling, the “clean up” set no limit to the amount of plutonium remaining deeper than six feet. This opened the door for burying portions of buildings and landfills that had not been decontaminated and that are still highly radioactive. Consequently, over 1,300 acres were classified as a Superfund site in 1989 (a designation of the country’s most contaminated sites) and remain fenced off to prevent access.
But the materials buried in the ground have not been sealed off from the environment. The plutonium won’t remain covered up for long. The soil is constantly being worked by burrowing animals, plants, rain and the ever-present winds, all of which cause the plutonium to move up through the soil. Plutonium is now found in the animals and plants on the site, it runs off during rainstorms, contaminating creeks, lakes and reservoirs, and it’s floating around in the air.
To make matters worse, plutonium contamination is not restricted to the Rocky Flats industrial site. A government study in 1970 documented relatively heavy plutonium contamination of the soil in and around the site. The plutonium plume extends across nearly 30 square miles beyond the borders of Rocky Flats, including Standley Lake, a popular recreational area. These lands were not part of the partial “clean up” at Rocky Flats. There are no signs alerting people to this contamination or the risks to their health.
Rocky Flats National Radiation Refuge
Rather than trying to keep people away from Rocky Flats and its inherent dangers, the federal government is encouraging public access and recreation here. With total disregard for the known dangers of plutonium exposure and the documentation of plutonium contamination in the soil, the Department of Energy transferred 4,480 acres surrounding the Superfund site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 to be managed as a wildlife refuge. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge remains closed to the public for now and the Nuclear Guardians want to keep it that way. They have dubbed this refuge “The Rocky Flats National Radiation Refuge.”
The Nuclear Guardians are tackling the refuge issue on several different fronts.
Keep the Refuge Closed Despite growing opposition, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) intends to open the refuge to public recreation in 2018 and has already conducted several tours of this site. FWS also has plans to build a visitor center and develop trails, involving construction that would disturb the soil and release plutonium particles into the air. Nuclear Guardians want to keep people out of the refuge and prevent any construction on the land. They speak out against these proposals at every opportunity. As part of their public outreach and education, they are circulating a petition that calls for keeping the refuge closed. (To view and sign the petition, https://tinyurl.com/lsfd6df).
Keep Kids Off Rocky Flats is a petition campaign aimed at educating school boards, teachers, and parents. In the event that the refuge does open to the public, the Nuclear Guardians want to make sure that schools do not send their kids to the refuge on field trips. The petition states: “Scientific evidence has shown that tiny plutonium particles can be brought to the surface and released into the air, where they can be readily inhaled by anyone nearby. Children are our most vulnerable citizens – and they will live long enough to die of cancer if exposed to the multitude of carcinogens on site. Bottom line: land adjacent to a Superfund site is no place for children to play!”
Nuclear Guardians have successfully petitioned the Boulder Valley School District, which unanimously passed a resolution to prohibit student field trips to Rocky Flats. Ongoing petitions are targeting other local school districts. (You can find the petition at http://www.kkorf.org)
No Controlled Burns Whether or not the refuge remains closed, the FWS will continue to manage the site. Nuclear Guardians have had to educate wildlife managers as well as the general public about the dangers of controlled burns at and around Rocky Flats. A controlled burn is a commonly used practice to help rid a natural area of invasive plants. But at Rocky Flats, a controlled burn would unleash untold amounts of radioactive materials into the air. Vegetation here absorbs plutonium from the soil. As the plants burn, plutonium is released into the air.
Because the federal government’s official position is that “Rocky Flats is clean and safe,” FWS had planned to do a controlled burn in 2015. Strong citizen opposition, spearheaded by the Nuclear Guardians, convinced the FWS to postpone the burn. Nuclear Guardians also petitioned the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to cancel FWS’s 2015 burn permit and require a public hearing prior to FWS obtaining another burn permit. Nuclear Guardians will continue to monitor the management of the refuge and to consult with experts to encourage safe land stewardship of contaminated soils.
The creation of the wildlife refuge promotes the perception that the land around Rocky Flats is now safe. It also is an attractive amenity to developers. In 2011, the same year that the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project formed, one of the largest housing developments in the state, known as Candelas, began moving dirt along the southern edge of the Rocky Flats refuge. A 1,500-acre development, Candelas promotes green homes, open spaces, and great views but mentions absolutely nothing about the nuclear weapons plant that once operated there or the plutonium contamination that covers the landscape. Even in disclosure forms, Candelas does not inform homebuyers of the risks. Instead they mislead buyers with a study that claims radiation on the building site is within acceptable levels. But the study did not test for plutonium; it tested for other types of radiation, such as radon, a naturally occurring element.
Candelas’ slick sales promotions make this area look like heaven on earth, instead of the toxic sacrifice zone that it has become. People are not told that they are buying homes downwind from an active Superfund site concealed within the wildlife refuge. Construction workers are not told of their exposure risk to the plutonium that’s being unearthed as they excavate and move dirt. And people living downwind of Candelas are unaware that the radioactive particles being unearthed here will become airborne and may be carried to their homes as far away as Denver.
Keeping people in the dark about the history of Rocky Flats seems to be a priority not only for Candelas, but for the Department of Energy as well. There are no signs around Rocky Flats that warn people of the presence of a Superfund site, that commemorate the nuclear weapons plant that operated here or that inform people of the radioactive legacy that remains with its related health risks. It’s as though the government wants to wipe the memory of Rocky Flats from the public consciousness.
Fortunately, in 2015, a local artist installed a stunning sculpture called “Cold War Horse” along the highway leading to Candelas that won’t let us forget. A powerful black horse is dressed in a red hazmat suit along with goggles and respirator like the ones worn by plutonium workers at Rocky Flats. The sculpture was vandalized shortly after it was unveiled. Artist Jeff Gipe was able to raise enough funds to restore the horse and secure it where it now stands as a memorial to the plant workers’ sacrifice and as a warning to all about Rocky Flats.
Like the Cold War Horse, The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project was created to ensure that the world never forgets. And as other courageous local citizens have come to learn the truth of Rocky Flats, they have formed grassroots organizations that are committed to educating the public and protecting people from further exposure to the radioactive and chemical contaminants they have inherited. Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project is grateful to be working together with:
Candelas Glows which is dedicated to stopping any development around Rocky Flats, advocates for permanent closure of the refuge and creation of memorials so that people will never forget what happened at Rocky Flats. (https://candelasglows.com/)
Rocky Flats Downwinders which works to bring about awareness of Rocky Flats in order to educate the community, to sensitize medical professionals regarding potential adverse health effects suffered by Downwinders, and to obtain medical monitoring for Rocky Flats Downwinders, as well as inclusion under the Radiation and Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA). (http://rockyflatsdownwinders.com/)
Rocky Flats Right To Know which advocates for permanent signage around the former nuclear weapons plant. (https://www.rockyflatsrighttoknow.org/)
Members of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project meet weekly in Boulder, CO. They continue to wrestle with the questions of how to guard against something that you can’t see, smell, taste, hear or feel and how to convince people of a danger that is undetectable without specialized equipment. They strategize, organize, imagine, collaborate, and educate. Above all, they support and encourage each other because they know they are in this for the long haul. They are deeply committed to doing all they can to keep the plutonium at Rocky Flats in the ground instead of blowing in the wind. Future generations are counting on them to succeed.
For more information on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Project, visit http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/
Two of the best books on Rocky Flats:
Full Body Burden Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
The Ambushed Grand Jury How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed by Wes McKinley and Caron Balkany
Click here to read the Nuclear Guardianship Ethic
(created ca. 1990, revised July 2011)
Kathleen Rude fell in love with the natural world as a young child and found her voice for environmental activism at age 10. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and an M.S. in Natural Resources. Kathleen began her career as an environmental writer. Her studies of indigenous spiritual practice eventually led her to become a shamanic practitioner and ceremonial leader. She has been mentored by Joanna Macy and is a senior facilitator of the Work That Reconnects. Kathleen is affiliated with the Joanna Macy Center at Naropa in Boulder, CO. In addition to her Active Hope workshops, she also runs workshops on environmental awareness and Earth-based spirituality. Kathleen has published her first novel, The Redemption of Red Fire Women. She is a board member of Nuclear Energy Information Service, a nuclear power watchdog organization, opposing nuclear power and promoting sustainable renewable energy.
Excellent article, thank you!
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I am REALTOR unfamiliar with the history of mismanagement at Rocky Flats. In researching info for a doctor client wanting to buy a new home in Candelas, I found your paper very informative.
Thank you, Jon