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Peace Train: Rocky Flats Refuge is too risky for outdoor enthusiasts

Various hot spots may contain breathable particles of plutonium

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculations or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

— President John Kennedy, Sept. 25, 1961

About 10 miles south of Boulder lies the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. It was established in 2007 and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It surrounds an area that was once a nuclear weapons plant that produced 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs between 1952 and 1989 and is now an EPA Superfund Site.

The land is gorgeous, I think, because it has been protected and off-limits for probably 50 years. It has striking vistas of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, rolling prairie grasslands, woodlands and wetlands. It is home to 239 migratory and resident wildlife species, including prairie falcons, deer, elk, coyotes, songbirds and the federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is no wonder that people want to go there to hike or ride mountain bikes over the tallgrass prairie and drop down into the lush valleys.

The trouble is, according to the MTB Project (Mountain Bike Project), “Portions of the Refuge surround a historic Cold War site. For nearly four decades, thousands of women and men worked at the Plant, building weapons components for the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal. In 1989, operations ended and the Rocky Flats Plant was added to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of sites that needed to be cleaned up.

“Beginning in 1992, many of the same Cold War veterans who had built weapons components at the Plant assisted with an unprecedented and enormously complex Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (‘Superfund’) cleanup project to investigate and remediate the site.”

The heart of the problem for visitors to the Refuge is ionizing radiation that can alter the electrical charge of atoms and molecules within cells of our bodies, creating health problems. The most pertinent type of radiation comes from alpha particles — scattered widely over the land of the Refuge — because of the manufacturing of plutonium pits, plus the random dumping and burying of plutonium-contaminated waste as well as industrial fires.  Alpha particles are heavier and weaker than other forms of radiation but if inhaled and lodged in a lung, they continually irradiate surrounding tissue, damaging cells, according to Dr. LeRoy Moore’s book “Plutonium and People Don’t Mix.”

Kristen Iversen wrote a book about growing up near Rocky Flats: “Full Body Burden — Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.” In the book, she says that she wants to make sure people know the risks they’re getting into if they choose to go into the Rocky Flats area for any kind of public recreation.

“There are breathable particles of plutonium out there in various hot spots and people need to know the kind of risks they’re taking if they’re hiking or biking out at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge,” she wrote. “Or if they’re going to let their kindergartener or first-grader go out on a trip to Rocky Flats. People need to know what remains.”

Let’s close it, sadly, forever.