English singer-songwriter Kate Bush sings, "chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung," in her song "Breathing."
Rocky Flats, 8 miles south of Boulder, was home to a plutonium pit factory; 70,000 grapefruit-sized pits were manufactured for nuclear weapons. Each pit, if fractured into breathable particles, contains enough plutonium to kill every person in the world, according to Kristen Iversen in her book "Full Body Burden."
Production was stopped after a raid by the FBI and EPA in 1989 for suspected environmental crimes, and the outer area of the plant was eventually declared safe in 2005 by the EPA, the DOE and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after a clean-up process that cost less and was quicker than predicted and felt by many observers to have been inadequate.
According to Kristen Iversen, during production years, there were 200 fires at Rocky Flats that released plutonium, including two big ones.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was given responsibility for 4,465 acres of the site as a wildlife refuge, is planning to build a visitor's center and a trail system for hikers and cyclists. It's a beautiful place and, on the surface, seems ideal for recreation: It's tall grass prairie land with abundant wildlife, and it looks like it would be an exquisite place to visit. Why do activists have a lawsuit and why are they and others opposed to Rocky Flats ever being opened to the public?
Because of the long history of contamination of the site with plutonium-239 and other toxins.
Because taking a single particle of plutonium into the body can be destructive. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 94).
There is also a tricky problem. The Fish and Wildlife Service follows guidelines and scientific data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that Rocky Flats is safe. Activists search their documents and find discrepancies plus have independent scientific information contrary to the conclusions the Fish and Wildlife Service relies on. A case of dueling sciences.
The precautionary principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. We should employ it with Rocky Flats and all nuclear sites.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.