The late Thomas Berry insisted with a calm urgency that we humans are at a turning point in our relationship with nature. Either we engage in the "great work" of rapidly replacing our deadly industrial risk society with an ecologically wholesome way of life, or we are done for as a species. How we deal with the Rocky Flats site is a test case.
The Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory, located 16 miles northwest of central Denver, was built in the early 1950s as part of a vast project to mass-produce nuclear weapons. For nearly four decades the plant produced the explosive plutonium "pit" of every nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal. From a military-industrial standpoint, Rocky Flats was a big success. But this success was tragically costly to environmental integrity, public health and democracy.
Due to the secrecy with which the plant operated, the public learned only gradually that major accidents as well as routine operations had released into the environment deadly clouds of plutonium particles too small to see but potentially lethal if inhaled, ingested or otherwise taken into the body. Because plutonium remains radioactive for a quarter-million years, its presence in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger. The FBI raid on the plant in 1989 to collect evidence of environmental lawbreaking underscored the danger. Production soon ended, never to be resumed.
How is it that Rocky Flats, with a history like this, could be an opportunity for ecological transformation? The opportunity flows directly from our human responsibility for conditions at the site. With production ended, the badly contaminated site was "cleaned up." But no effort was made to clean it to the maximum extent possible, which the public had sought. Instead, in a vivid display of anti-democratic risk society in operation, much plutonium was deliberately left in the environment on the assumption, first, that it would remain in place and, second, that exposure to it would be insufficient to cause harm. Both assumptions are false.
The idea that plutonium would stay in place is refuted by evidence that was not considered by those who planned the "cleanup," such as:
Rapid plutonium movement detected in soil on site in 1995.
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65 cartons of data on environmental lawbreaking seized by the FBI in 1989 and sealed by order of a federal court.
A study showing that 18 species of burrowing animals on site constantly redistribute soil and its contents, including plutonium.
After completion of the "cleanup" at Rocky Flats, the Department of Energy (DOE), which ran the plant, transferred roughly three fourths of the site (about 7 square miles) to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to operate as a wildlife refuge, while retaining about 2 square miles of land in the more contaminated center of the site for ongoing maintenance. FWS decided, despite opposition from 81 percent of the commenting parties, that it eventually would open the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge for public recreation. This decision is clearly unwise, given information cited above.
In response to the inadequate Rocky Flats "cleanup" and the official indifference about risk, we at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, in conjunction with the Naropa University`s Environmental Studies program, seek to implement Nuclear Guardianship at the site. This is a community-based initiative that will enable present and future generations to take responsibility for the nuclear legacy bequeathed to them in a way that protects people and the environment from further radioactive poisoning.
The intent of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship project is to provide a model for long-term ecological caretaking of radioactively contaminated sites while challenging the government plan to open Rocky Flats for public recreation. The project will be launched during the first six months of 2011 with a series of presentations and workshops in which technical specialists, artists and community leaders interact with government officials and a broad spectrum of the public to facilitate a shift from the polluting risk-based culture we have inherited to a culture of ecological responsibility. To learn more, to see a schedule of events and to support this effort, visit RockyFlatsNuclearGuardianship.org.
LeRoy Moore is a consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.