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Wildlife refuge may still be radioactive

  Scientists may have discovered a radioactive "hot spot" at a future wildlife refuge surrounding the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. The plant, northwest of Denver, produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons for more than 30 years. The U.S. Department of Energy and Kaiser-Hill, the company contracted to clean up the site, plan to dispose of the plant’s nuclear waste by 2006. Once it’s clean, 6,000 acres surrounding the plant will be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will be in charge of regulating everything from public access to future prairie dog colonies.

But in September, Kaiser-Hill discovered a 30-acre plot in the northern buffer zone with a radioactivity level that was 120 times higher than expected, although still well below the limit set for the refuge. Now, Kaiser-Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are re-sampling the plot to see if the hot spot was merely the result of a lab error.

"We don’t really think it’s news," says the Energy Department’s supervisory general engineer, Joseph Legare, who calls the results "curious."

Others aren’t so sure about the safety of the buffer zone. "Plutonium remains dangerous for a quarter of a million years," says LeRoy Moore, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. "We have no idea what human and natural events are going to disturb the land."

The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to finalize the Rocky Flats management plan early this year.