The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was once known for making plutonium triggers for the much-feared nuclear bomb. Today, Rocky Flats is seeking a new reputation – that of a wildlife refuge, where deer, elk, mountain lions and even bald eagles can roam in peace.
Recently, the Environmental
Protection Agency certified the completion of the cleanup of the
6,000-acre Rocky Flats site in northern Colorado. The site is the
latest addition to the 547 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge
Sixteen miles northwest of downtown Denver, Rocky
Flats once housed 14.2 tons of plutonium, 7.3 tons of uranium, and
large amounts of americium. Between 1945 and 1987, workers at the
plant built more than 700 triggers for nuclear bombs. In 1989,
Rocky Flats quit manufacturing nuclear weapons, and five years
later, cleanup of the site began. Congress passed the Rocky Flats
National Wildlife Refuge Act in 2001. The refuge will be partially
open this year, and fully operational in 2012 – complete with
hiking and equestrian trails, and even limited hunting.
The Rocky Flats plant was surrounded by a “buffer zone”
intended to protect the public from contamination, and that land
makes up most of the new refuge. It contains very small amounts of
windblown americium and plutonium, says Carl Spreng, project
manager of the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment.
Plutonium can cause lung cancer, liver cancer or bone sarcoma in
humans, while americium also causes bone cancer.
tore down some 800 buildings – many of which were
contaminated. The cleanup is set to come to a close some 50 years
sooner and $30 billion less than previously estimated, but critics
say that dangerous corners have been cut during the process.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center recently sent
a letter to Colorado state leaders asking for their help in keeping
Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge closed to public access. Leroy
Moore of the Center remains concerned about contamination at the
site: Two years ago, he says, two dead deer found on an adjacent
road contained traces of plutonium. He also cites a 1996 study done
at Rocky Flats showing that plutonium is constantly being
redistributed by wind, burrowing animals such as prairie dogs, and
even earthworms. “The legacy of Rocky Flats should be learned
from archives of atomic history in libraries and museums,”
says Moore, “not from picnic benches and hiking trails at a
The federal Fish and
Wildlife Service, though, believes that the site is safe.
“Regulatory agencies provide strict oversight of cleanup
operations,” says Steve Berendzen, the refuge’s
manager, “and I am confident they follow through according to
the criteria they are using.”
weapons-plants-turned-refuges include the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in
Commerce City, Colo., where a herd of buffalo was recently released
– the first to roam freely in Colorado in more than a
century. Another is the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Range in
Nevada, a former nuclear test site.
controversy, Rocky Flats preserves an ecosystem that’s
steadily disappearing in the booming Front Range: acres of
undisturbed tall-grass prairie that support many species of
wildlife and birds. “ Creating the refuge,” says
Spreng, “will protect these assets for the foreseeable