WASHINGTON — The government is spending $7 billion to decontaminate a former nuclear weapons plant in Colorado and turn it into a wildlife refuge. But critics said Tuesday that the cleanup will still leave the soil too polluted.
Legislation before Congress would officially designate the Rocky Flats site, 15 miles northwest of Denver, a wildlife refuge after cleanup is completed.
Rocky Flats is contaminated with tons of plutonium and other radioactive materials, in buildings and in the soil, after years of weapons work. The Energy Department and its civilian contractor will decide early next year how clean the site should become.
A report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research contends that the residual contamination levels being considered by the government are 40 times greater than what would be allowed if the land is used for something other than a wildlife refuge.
“We have no control over what will happen at Rocky Flats in the future,” said LeRoy Moore, a member of a citizens’ group in Boulder, Colo., that is monitoring the cleanup. About 2.5 million people live within 50 miles of the facility.
While the site stretches across more than 6,000 acres, less than 200 acres are contaminated. While much of the soil will be trucked away, acres will remain contaminated.
The report by IEER, a research group long involved in nuclear watchdog activities, contends that designating the area a wildlife refuge will allow the cleanup to be less stringent.
“We don’t oppose the designation of this site as a wildlife refuge as a short-term way to keep the public off the site,” said Arjun Mahkijani, a nuclear physicist who heads the institute in Takoma Park, Md. But he said cleanup standards should take into account other likely uses of the land, including farming or residential development, where people are more likely to become exposed.
Plutonium and other radioisotopes that will be left over in the soil would be expected to remain dangerous for thousands of years, he said. After the cleanup, the report said, the soil should be left with no more than 10 pico-curies of radioactivity per gram of soil, far cleaner than what the Energy Department has been considering.
Jeremy Karpatkin, a spokesman for the Energy Department’s Rocky Flats project office, said no decision has been made on the level of residual contamination. Meeting the level sought by Makhijani, though, “would involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars unnecessarily for very little risk reduction to the public,” he said, even taking into account various uses for the land.
Preliminary analysis from the department concludes that soil contamination could be as high as 490 pico-curies. It could still fall within acceptable risk levels of no more than one additional cancer per 10,000 individuals if the land becomes a wildlife refuge.
The maximum contamination allowed would fall to 173 pico-curies if the land became “rural residential,” according to the DOE analysis cited by Rocky Flats officials.
Whatever the final standard, “We will provide a safe and effective cleanup of Rocky Flats,” said Karpatkin. The government already has spent nearly $3 billion on the cleanup, and will spend another $4 billion over the next five years, he said.
Makhijani said the use of wildlife designations is a way to cut cleanup costs at Rocky Flats and, possibly, at other contaminated weapons sites in South Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho and Washington state.
“This is a foot in the door for relaxation of cleanup standards,” he said.
On the Net:
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research: http://www.ieer.org
Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site: http://www.rfets.gov/