OPINION: GUEST OPINIONS
Emily Graham: Rocky Flats is likely leaking alpha radiation
By Emily Graham
POSTED: 02/26/2019 07:12:12 PM MST
UPDATED: 02/26/2019 07:13:31 PM MST
When I was getting my undergraduate degree at University of Colorado in 2012, I took a general chemistry course. Much to the chagrin of my professor, I'm sure, I remember very little of the class except for the last segment on nuclear chemistry. I was so fascinated by the exciting way it was presented, including a story about KGB spy Aleksandr Litvinenko, who defected and joined MI6. He was killed, likely by a Russian spy, through alpha radiation poisoning.
I remember this so well, because the thought of unknowingly ingesting particles of alpha radiation in your tea was so terrifying and such a stealthy way of killing someone (definitely worthy of a James Bond movie). To demonstrate just how stealthy alpha radiation is, the professor placed an object on her desk and asked the class to imagine that it is emitting alpha radiation. She then placed a single sheet of paper over it. She said, "Now there is virtually no way to detect this radiation with a Geiger counter when it is covered even by a single sheet of paper, but if you inhale it or ingest it in any way, you will die a slow and painful death." The class was riveted.
Imagine my horror, then, when I learned that the type of radiation at Rocky Flats, a nuclear Superfund Site, is alpha radiation, emitted mainly by plutonium-239. I attended a Rocky Flats Stewardship Council meeting in early 2018 during which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment insisted that Rocky Flats is safe, but their evidence clearly did not account for the specific type of radiation at Rocky Flats. Even in my general chemistry class I learned that you cannot detect it with a Geiger counter; it must be specially tested for in the air and soil. During this meeting I also learned that the Department of Energy's report did show elevated levels of plutonium and trichloroethylene. When they do find elevated levels, they shorten the amount of time between tests, then do a 12-month rolling average and no actual intervention to clean or block off the site. Both the CDPHE and the DOE insisted that the levels were safe, and that Rocky Flats poses no risk to the public. I didn't buy it. I don't want to go the same way the spy did. I had to find out more.
I heard of a local group called Rocky Flats Right to Know and attended a meeting. I heard stories from women who had lost babies due to rare radiation-induced birth defects. I heard the story of a mother whose son has a rare form of heart cancer; only nine cases have been documented in the United States, two of which are in a neighborhood bordering Rocky Flats. How could this all be a coincidence?
I dove deeper. There are two lawsuits against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees a national wildlife refuge at Rocky Flats — one filed by the town of Superior and one filed by environmental groups with the goal of holding government agencies accountable for accurate testing and cleanup of the site. The "buffer zone" (peripheral operating unit) around the main plant (central operating unit) is now open to the public, which violates environmental law (theNational Environmental Policy Act), especially given the lack of comprehensive and accurate testing done. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. Undoubtedly there is plutonium on the site that is still essentially leaking alpha radiation into the air and undoubtedly after the several fires and spills on the site, there is radiation in the buffer zone. But don't worry, in about 250,000 years, Rocky Flats should finally be safe.
The people are waking up. We won't allow this to continue.
Emily Graham is a graduate student at the University of Denver.