The fear of a Marshall fire in Rocky Flats is real


The Marshall Fire could have been worse had it entered Rocky Flats.

On the evening of the fire in December, the authorities was afraid this would happen. Federal officials are struggling to convince members of the local community that the former nuclear weapons plant and Superfund site are indeed cleansed of radioactive contamination, but their account of the site’s condition is questionable, and Independent evidence suggests that an out-of-control grass fire at The Rocky Flats in high winds could disperse airborne radionuclides beyond the perimeter of the site, potentially posing a public health hazard to thousands of people.

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Rocky Flats from the early 1950s was the location of a factory who made plutonium “pits” – spheres of plutonium that act as triggers in nuclear weapons. For many years, hazardous waste was handled carelessly on site. Radioactive materials were often buried in the ground and accidents were frequent. The main production plant has become known as the most dangerous building in America.

In 1989, the FBI raided the plant, suspecting that the Department of Energy and a private contracted operator had violated several environmental laws at Rocky Flats. The plant soon closed and the property was designated an EPA Superfund site. A $7 billion cleanup was completed in 2005, and today the property, save for a former industrial area known as the “Central Operating Unit,” is a natural wildlife refuge, where members of the public can hike and bike the trails.

Don’t let recreational activities fool you. There are plenty of reasons to doubt that the shelter is as safe as federal and state authorities want you to believe.

As the devastating Marshall Fire, propelled by winds of around 100 mph, galloped across Boulder County grasslands and leveled neighborhoods on December 30, some local residents and leaders concerned about the public health risk a wildfire in Rocky Flats could pose. The activists had long opposed prescribed burns at the site due to concerns that the flames would spread plutonium contamination to neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, Department of Energy Rocky Flats site manager Andy Keim, speaking to a community meeting about the risk of wildfire on the property, said there was “no real potential threat”.

“Remaining infrastructure – buildings, slabs and basements – and underground soils with residual radiological contamination are buried under at least 3 feet of clean soil,” he said.

Be very skeptical of this statement.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt that the shelter is as safe as federal and state authorities want you to believe.

For decades, the federal government has been dishonest about Rocky Flats and the environmental damage caused by the plant. It has no credibility when it comes to the site. Today, Energy Department officials like Keim have a vested interest in maintaining the narrative that the property, once one of the most contaminated real estate properties in the country, is now somehow nearly pristine. Moreover, credible scientific evidence contradicts the “clean” label.

Michael Ketterer is the former chair of the Department of Chemistry at Metropolitan State University in Denver and is now part of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University. An expert in plutonium isotope tracing, he studied soil samples from the Rocky Flats and identified high levels of plutonium in an area at the east end of the property along Indiana Street. The ground, less than a meter from the surface, is contaminated, he said.

“It contains plutonium dioxide particles in an essentially pure form,” he said. “These particles are in respirable size ranges… It’s not a clean floor at all. It’s contaminated stuff.

What if a Marshall Fire crossed Rocky Flats?

“It’s just common sense that when there’s a big fire, there’s going to be all kinds of dust and dirt from the surface, it’s all going to be pulled into the smoke plume and it will be blown away,” said Ketterer. He added: “It would take a lot of contaminated soil into the air, it would get into the suspended particles that are in the air.”

Ketterer said he was not qualified to assess how much of a risk such an event would pose to public health.

Timothy Mousseau, a professor of ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, has studied how radionuclides emitted by wildfires near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster were dispersed. Chernobyl is very different from Rocky Flats, but Mousseau’s work offers background information that could affect conditions at Rocky Flats.

“We know that fires, especially hot fires, can redistribute radionuclides from the ground surface, the ground surface, into the atmosphere,” Mousseau told Newsline.

Scientists have found that the forest fires around Chernobyl – Rocky Flats is prone to less intense grass fires – resulted in a massive redistribution of radionuclides, which the fires not only moved but also made more radioactive. The intensity of a fire will determine how well it can redistribute radioactive material, Mousseau said. A very hot fire can spread contaminated ash for hundreds of kilometres.

“In terms of health consequences, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known,” Mousseau said. “Every isotope is radioactive, more or less, and when such isotopes are in the atmosphere, and if they are ingested, inhaled, they often lodge in the lungs, and where they lodge in the lungs can be points of sickness.”

This does not mean that if a fire breaks out in Rocky Flats, members of the surrounding community are necessarily at risk. But the best we can say is that the public health risk is largely unknown, which contradicts federal government assurances that there is no cause for concern. Such assurances are suspect at best.

Many of the factors that made the extraordinary Marshall Fire possible were the result of climate change, and Marshall Fire-like events can be expected to become more frequent. Because it’s likely only a matter of time before a wildfire spreads to Rocky Flats, government leaders are compelled to acknowledge the truth about the risks, even as questions remain.



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