Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel Proposed
Kaiser-Hill, a Department of Energy (DOE) contractor, recently announced completion of its cleanup of Rocky Flats, a former nuclear bomb factory located 16 miles from downtown Denver, Colorado.
From 1952 to 1989, DOE produced plutonium pits for the United States nuclear arsenal and other weapons components at Rocky Flats. These operations used highly radioactive and hazardous materials, such plutonium, beryllium, depleted uranium and solvents, which contaminated the air, soil and water.
In 1995, Kaiser-Hill, DOE and Congress made a deal for the cleanup of Rocky Flats. They arranged a fixed sum for completing all closure and cleanup activities and set December 2006 as the deadline. As a part of their deal, Congress allocated $7 billion for the cleanup. However, only 7% of this money, or $473 million, could be spent on actual soil and water cleanup.
Kaiser-Hill announced recently that the cleanup has been completed early, saving as much as $1 billion. The savings will not be spent to improve cleanup. Instead, Kaiser-Hill will receive a $560 million bonus from DOE for finishing early and under budget. The bonus is almost $90 million more than was spent on the cleanup itself.
DOE used what is called a "risk based end state" to determine clean up levels for the heavily contaminated soil. This means that they decided on the site's future use as a wildlife refuge and established cleanup goals to meet the standards for that use. DOE established different standards for cleanup of the surface and subsurface soil. While surface soil must be fairly clean, DOE allowed high levels of contamination to remain at depths below three feet. These standards would not be acceptable if the land were to be used for a residence or farming.
As a wildlife refuge, Rocky Flats will be open to the public for recreational use. While the site has been cleaned to the level required to protect a wildlife refuge worker, it has not been cleaned to protect vulnerable members of the public, such as the very young and very old, who may visit once the site is open for public recreation.
Current and future residences in the surrounding area are also at risk. The nearest residence is only 2 miles from Rocky Flats and the population in that area is growing quickly. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,400 years and there is no way to predict or ensure how the land will be used over this amount of time. Leaving high levels of contaminants in the site's soil poses an unknown, yet significant, threat to future generations.
Activists are concerned that the cleanup plan for Rocky Flats has set a precedent in which DOE sacrifices safety in the name of expediency and cost reduction. LeRoy Moore, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, said, "[t]he real driver for the Rocky Flats cleanup is cost, not risk . . . . [DOE] should work closely with affected communities and forge a genuine commitment to the long-term health and safety of every person who may ever live near or use its former nuclear weapons sites, precisely what it failed to do at Rocky Flats."