Erring on waste

  Dear HCN,

As a Christmas subscriber, I have both praise and criticism for three recent articles about nuclear waste in the West.

In the Dec. 18, 2000, issue, Oakley Brooks authored a short but commendable piece called "Agency gets rebuked," in which he unearthed a rather obscure report critical of the Department of Energy's long-term plan for dealing with legacy waste. He even managed to interview two of the study's authors.

However, the very next issue (HCN, 1/15/01) saw HCN stumble not once, but twice, in reporting two separate stories on the former nuclear weapons plant, Rocky Flats.

Paul Larmer got several things wrong in his review of Making a Real Killing, by Len Ackland. He states that nuclear bomb facilities, such as Rocky Flats, cost "tens of millions of dollars a year to clean up," a gross understatement. In 2001, DOE will spend $650 million at Rocky Flats alone, and over $6 billion at nuclear sites nationwide.

Also, his statement, "Rocky Flats was built and operated before we knew how to handle nuclear and toxic waste," implies that we have since learned the lesson. In fact, anyone who has kept abreast of recent incidents, in which Rocky Flats cleanup workers were exposed to plutonium, would know that we still haven't figured out how to handle fissile materials safely.

Finally, I had to wonder if Larmer had really read the book when he claimed the 1969 fire, which he likened to Chernobyl, was one of "dozens of equally dangerous situations and events which the public never knew about." I have read it, and although Ackland reports that the '69 fire was indeed a close shave for nearby metropolitan Denver, the copy I read was oddly missing 11 of the 12 other near catastrophes, the lone exception being a 1957 fire that actually resulted in significant off-site contamination.

To add insult to injury, Catherine Lutz was guilty of exaggeration in her two-page spread ("Hot Property") chronicling the so-called Rocky Flats "turf war." She maintains that Rocky Flats, in its day, produced "thousands of tons of hazardous waste on a daily basis." The reality, many thousands of tons produced over 40 years of operation, needs no embellishing. What's worse, the article's main premise, that Rocky Flats is in imminent danger of being developed, simply is not true. All indications are that the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge Act enjoys widespread, local support - enough to ensure the signature of a states' rights, pro-development president.

To be fair, I only noticed these errors because I work for an organization that oversees the cleanup of Rocky Flats. Even so, given its discriminating readership, HCN can afford few such error-prone issues.

Jerry Henderson
Denver, Colorado