From weapons to wildlife

  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 System.

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.

Workers 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 still-contaminated site.”

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.”

Other 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.

Despite the 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 future.”