DOE: Cleanup over at Rocky Flats Plant

The Department of Energy says the site of a former nuclear weapons manufacturing plant near Denver is officially free of contamination. If the Colorado state government and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree, most of the land will become a public park.

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The US Department of Energy says it's finished cleaning up a nuclear weapons production site near Denver. Within a few years, the 6,300-acre Rocky Flats site will be turned into a national wildlife refuge and people will be allowed in for recreation. Critics of the cleanup say the DOA cut corners and may be putting future generations at risk. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

For 40 years, Rocky Flats manufactured the balls of plutonium that make up the core of a nuclear weapon. In 1992, it was shut down because of safety concerns for workers and because the US stopped making nuclear bombs when the Cold War ended. The DOE estimated it would take 70 years and more than $30 billion to clean up the pollution, but the agency accelerated those plans and developed less stringent criteria. As a result, the cleanup was finished in less than 10 years and for about one-fourth the cost. Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell had the honor of making the announcement Thursday.

Deputy Secretary CLAY SELL (Department of Energy): It gives me tremendous pleasure to be here today to announce that the Department of Energy has certified the cleanup as complete at Rocky Flats.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRADY: The DOA's contractor, Kayser Hill(ph), says this is the biggest and most complex environmental cleanup in US history. Enough radioactive waste was shipped off site to fill a train 90 miles long. But some pollution remains. For instance, two contaminated basements with trace amounts of plutonium in the walls were simply buried. That worries Leroy Moore(ph) with Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Works.

Mr. LEROY MOORE (Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Works): They took a shortcut in that they're not cleaning it to the maximum extent possible with present technology.

BRADY: Moore, like most critics of the cleanup, opposes nuclear weapons in general. He says the DOE is getting off easy and should've done a more thorough job. He concedes, though, that there's little room to challenge the cleanup in court because, he says, the DOE appears to be meeting the letter of the law.

Mr. MOORE: What's legal and what's right are not the same thing. What's legal and what's safe in the long term is not the same thing.

BRADY: Moore says the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. So the danger will be around for many generations to come.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BRADY: As the celebration of the DOE announcement wound down, Colorado Senator Wayne Allard said Americans can rest assured that Rocky Flats has been cleaned up sufficiently. He says the key measure is how much radiation a person would be exposed to when visiting the site after it's turned into a wildlife refuge. And he says it's really not much at all.

Senator WAYNE ALLARD (Republican, Colorado): You know, you can have a certain amount of exposure. People who work around radiation and whatnot, like myself when I was a veterinarian, or a doctor, you wear a badge and you're allowed a certain amount of exposure. Well, it wasn't anywhere where anybody would have to worry about that exposure over the natural background exposure of this state.

BRADY: Despite objections from critics, Allards' thinking appears to be winning out. The critics are less vocal these days and at least two of the opposition groups have disbanded. The state of Colorado and the Environmental Protection Agency still must sign off on the project, but that's expected to be just a formality. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.


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