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Plan for a burn at Rocky Flats stirs lingering fears

More from the nuclear fallout department.


It takes a little more than 24,000 years for plutonium-239 to lose half of its radioactive energy. People’s memories don’t last as long, but can have their own burning energy when it comes to risks from nuclear-weapons plants.

Plans for a prescribed fire this spring in a corner of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge – formerly the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant – have run into resistance from activists, former workers and new homeowners concerned about the health effects of burning potentially contaminated grasslands. But those worries are outdated and oversized, according to state and federal government managers, and ignore natural wildfire risks that could pose more severe problems.

Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site prior to cleanup, July 1995 (Photo via U.S. Department of Energy)
Located between Denver and Boulder, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs beginning in 1952. An FBI raid in 1989 halted operations after finding evidence of illegal radioactive waste dumping, burning and storage across the 6,200-acre site.

Since then, government managers and contractors have spent $7.5 billion cleaning up Rocky Flats: razing buildings, removing radioactive materials and soils, and restoring other areas. The open and rolling landscape now encompasses a National Wildlife Refuge; it remains off-limits to people, and the hottest spots are still monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of efforts to manage the lands today, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans for a prescribed burn on 701 acres in the southwest corner of the site last fall. The planned burn will help thin out invasive weeds and overgrown vegetation – before a natural wildfire occurs and scorches the area more severely.

“If we have a wildfire, it will be devastating,” says David Lucas, Fish and Wildlife refuge manager. Erosion caused by a wildfire could move soil and materials from more contaminated areas and release airborne radiation.

Speaking to the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, a panel of local government and other representatives, and a public audience on Jan. 26, Lucas said the construction of a major new housing and shopping development, Candelas, along the Flats’ southern boundary has “induced” the burn plans. He added that the planned burn area has been tested and contamination is no higher than “background levels” found elsewhere. Managers and technicians who will carry out the work will take no extra precautions compared with other prescribed burns. The state of Colorado approved a smoke permit for the project.

But all that has done little to alleviate scrutiny and fears of locals. Long-time activists and former plant workers say the burn plans are reckless and the action could release plutonium locked in the soil and vegetation. Alternatives, such as using goats to graze overgrown areas (and then probably killing the potentially radioactive livestock), should have gotten more consideration, they say. Opponents also argue that a test burn in 2000 released much higher levels of airborne radiation and toxic smoke than the government has acknowledged.

“Is it appropriate to have a burn on a radionuclide-contaminated site?” asks Mickey Harlow, a retired water-quality analyst for the nearby town of Westminster. That’s a national question for former nuclear sites across the West that are now being managed as wildlife areas and being surrounded by new development. “We have to err on the side of safety,” says Harlow, who along with others are meeting with attorneys to consider actions to prevent the burn.

Following the past coverups and negligence at Rocky Flats – and considering the ongoing health problems of former workers – the enduring skepticism of government actions at Rocky Flats is no surprise. Harlow and many others contend the site’s toxic legacy and the extent of contamination remains unknown or underestimated.

Many residents in nearby newly built developments in the towns of Superior, Broomfield and Arvada have now moved in, unaware of Rocky Flats’ past. Homeowners and activists have organized to ensure that other potential residents are better informed of the fading history – and the uncertainty surrounding the former weapons facility.

In response to the heightened suspicions of residents, the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council has asked Fish and Wildlife to reconsider its plans, scheduled for the spring when conditions permit. But David Abelson, himself an energy-policy consultant for local governments, emphasizes that the council’s opposition is rooted in citizens’ concerns, not any specific health risks.

Containing radiation – and people’s fears – is tricky business. Lucas, the refuge manager, understands the worries, but he says that while Fish and Wildlife also recognizes that prescribed fire wouldn’t be appropriate across all of Rocky Flats, residents should understand that radioactive contamination isn’t a ubiquitous threat – and choosing not to manage the expansive site brings its own dangerous consequences, including a possible wildfire spreading to more contaminated areas.

“We have to get past that,” Lucas says. “We know the Flats will burn.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN contributing editor. He tweets at @jzaffos. Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that David Abelson is a Department of Energy contractor, which is incorrect. The story has been corrected.