- (EIN) - For 50 years, the Department of Energy
(DOE) has cut and mowed the vegetation around its nuclear facilities. In
1999, the DOE announced a policy change: henceforth, the National Forest
Service (NFS) would use prescribed burns to clear vegetation surrounding
DOE nuclear facilities at Los Alamos, Hanford, Idaho National Nuclear
Lab (INNEL), Rocky Flats and Savannah River.
- Despite pleas by local residents to consider
the DOE insists on promoting burns over mowing, cutting or using grazing
animals to control the vegetation. Their environmental managers claimed
that burning would reduce the vegetative buildup (called
thereby reducing fuel load in the event of natural fires. (Ironically,
an earlier Rocky Flats burn failed to reduce the thatch.)
- It would appear that these burns are actually calculated
to rid these sites of contaminated vegetation to prepare them for rapid
rehabilitation and future development. Realistic timelines for cleaning
up the nuclear sites have been scrapped, allowing DOE to conduct "down
and dirty" cleanups in order to "return" the land to the
public as quickly as possible for redevelopment. When cleanup time is
by 50 years, corners are cut. Burning vegetation is a simple way to remove
widespread contamination, rapidly rehabilitating these Superfund sites
in the eyes of local governments and developers. Unfortunately, this
merely moves airborne contamination off-site into communities, exposing
- Colorado Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Mark
Udall proposed designating the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility buffer
zone as a "wildlife refuge." Allard and Udall announced their
proposal last September at Colorado's Rocky Flats Superfund Site (while
standing in the main plutonium nitrate field, where plutonium wastes have
been slowly leaking from evaporation ponds for more than 40 years). If
approved, the 6,000-plus-acre nuclear buffer zone surrounding Rocky Flats
would be fitted with hiking trails and opened up for field trips to allow
school children to observe "wildlife habitat." But there is a
problem with the plan.
- Burning contaminated vegetation releases radioactive
smoke that can be inhaled, exposing lung and body tissue to damaging alpha
radiation. Tissue samples taken from a herd of cattle that grazed on
fields near the Rocky Flats plant for only three months were found to
higher amounts of radioactivity than herds that grazed year-round at the
Nevada Test Site.
- Rocky Flats is the only DOE nuclear facility with a
buffer zone - the only protection for the 3.8 million-plus residents of
metropolitan Denver.George Bush is currently considering a national policy
promoting prescribed burns for vegetation control across the US. Congress
should act to see that prescribed burns at nuclear sites are permanently
- In 2000, the NFS was advised to cancel a scheduled burn
at Los Alamos because of the danger posed by high winds. The NFS ignored
the warnings and ignited a catastrophic wildfire that raged for days. DOE
officials subsequently claimed that the fire had contributed no
contamination to downwind communities (the same communities that have
more than 50 years of releases from the facility).
- In April 2000, after an outcry from nearby residents,
a 500-acre prescribed burn at Rocky Flats was reduced to a "test
of 50 acres. Rocky Flats personnel refused to pre-test the vegetation in
a burn-box under controlled laboratory conditions to determine what kind
of contamination might be released in the ash. Ash is known to act as a
concentrating mechanism for contaminants.
- On April 6, 2000, the vegetation was burned in the open,
allowing a huge cloud to drift up the canyons, north to Boulder, and along
the Front Range, beyond Golden and Lakewood. Despite pleas by residents,
the ash was not tested afterward.
- A KMGH Channel 7 film crew was taping an interview at
the Environmental Information Network (EIN) office that morning when NFS
personnel started the burn. Soon, a giant brown and gray cloud lifted into
the air and began moving toward the suburbs. In less than 40 minutes, the
cloud traveled 14 miles through the metro area, south to Lakewood. The
EIN phone began ringing nonstop with calls from alarmed residents. Many
local citizens reported that the smoke left a "metallic taste"
in their mouths (a hallmark of uranium or plutonium exposure).
- We have a hand-held real-time Radalert radiation monitor
that measures alpha and beta particles, gamma and x-rays. Before the test
burn, local background radiation (much of it a legacy from aboveground
nuclear testing and over 50 years of accidents and operational releases
from Rocky Flats) was previously established as between 8 to 15 counts
per minute (cpm) on this monitor.
- Our radiation readings quickly reached the highest level
of detection (19,999 cpm). The TV crew was shocked to see that the thick
smoke that filled the air and smelled like a forest fire was also
our radiation monitor, confirming that the smoke was, indeed,
- The readings that remained stable enough to be kept as
good data exceeded 4,260 cpm - an extremely high reading by any standard.
The next day's readings subsided to 1,147 cpm and steadily declined over
the next few weeks. Nearly a year after the burn, background radiation
levels in the Denver-Boulder metro area remained about 10 cpm higher than
before the burn.
- Some of this may be attributable to the prescribed burn,
but other radiation may be the result from the ongoing demolition of old
concrete buildings at the Rocky Flats plutonium facility. Concrete acts
as a sponge for radiation and the dust from demolition is spread by the
wind. Concrete and metals are both subject to deterioration from radiation
- which is why the Chernobyl concrete sarcophagus is crumbling.
- Prescribed burns must be banned at all nuclear facilities. Well-funded citizen radiation monitoring networks need to be established
around these facilities. Instead of calling these reclaimed sites
refuges," these feel-good nuclear petting zoos should be renamed
Access Nuclear Reserves" - with no trails and no tours.
- Paula Elofson-Gardine is the executive director of EIN,
a nonprofit environmental education organization. The Colorado Business
Magazine saluted Elofson-Gardine as "knowing more about Rocky Flats
than the DOE." Susan Hurst, EIN's publications director, reported
Rockwell International to the FBI for using radioactive wastewater to
the Rocky Flats buffer zone.
- PW Box 280087
Lakewood, Co 80228
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