IGREW up in Arvada, Colorado, in the shadow of a nuclear bomb factory, so I read the just-released report on the Fukushima meltdown in Japan with special interest.
Coinciding with the first anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the 400-page report details the extensive misinformation supplied to the public by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) in collusion with Japanese officials.
The Japanese government’s failure to warn citizens about radioactive danger put the entire city of Tokyo at health risk — and the rest of us as well. The report, which was written by an independent investigative panel established by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (published on March 1 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), bluntly states that the much vaunted “absolute safety” of nuclear power is no more than a “twisted myth.” The threat from nuclear power plants is twofold: grand scale catastrophe and continuing health problems connected with radioactive contamination in our air, water, soil and food supply — both short-term, high-level contamination and the long-term, low-level kind.
In Japan, radiation was detected in beef, milk, spinach, tea leaves and rice.
And more than a dozen cities in the United States tested positive for fallout from Fukushima in their water supplies.
Scientists found radiation from Japan in milk from Phoenix to Little Rock, Arkansas, to Montpelier. A year later, many questions about Fukushima’s operations remain unanswered.
Tepco may be the latest in a line of the nuclear businesses with a self-imposed mandate to suppress truth. Here in the United States, we have our own tightly held radioactive secrets.
Rocky Flats, the now notorious Colorado bomb factory, produced plutonium “triggers” for nuclear weapons in the United States from 1952 to 1989.
There were countless fires, leaks and accidents at Rocky Flats; after decades of weapons production, and little environmental oversight, the area was profoundly contaminated.
During my childhood, none of us knew exactly what the plant actually did; the rumour in the neighborhood was that it made household cleaning products. We knew nothing about the 5,000 tainted barrels that leaked plutonium into the soil. Nor did we know about the two large fires, in 1957 and 1969, that sent radioactive plumes over the Denver metro area. Wind and water carried toxic elements into surrounding neighborhoods, including mine. The public was never warned.
Energy Department studies confirm that plutonium, carbon tetrachloride and other radioactive and toxic contaminants routinely escaped from the plant.
Although the plant closed more than 20 years ago, a recent study suggests that plutonium may still be migrating into neighboring areas. The connection between Fukushima and Rocky Flats was made explicit when recent soil tests for offsite plutonium at Rocky Flats found cesium — from Fukushima.
I worked at Rocky Flats but didn’t realise what kind of risks the plant posed until a 1994 “Nightline” special informed me I was working next to 14 tonnes of plutonium, most of it unsafely stored.
One man tried to sound an alarm. Dr.
Carl Johnson, Jefferson County health director from 1973 to 1981, directed numerous studies on contamination levels and health risks the plant posed to public health. Based on his conclusions, Dr Johnson opposed housing development near Rocky Flats. He was fired. Later studies confirmed many of his findings.
The government and private operators of Rocky Flats say that there’s been no harm to local residents and that the plutonium that has escaped from the plant — potentially as much as three tons over nearly four decades — is harmless. It’s no greater than “a pinch of salt and pepper,” Edward Putzier, the health physics manager for Dow Chemical, which used to operate Rocky Flats, told a civic group in 1971 .
One difference between salt and pepper and plutonium is that one-millionth of a gram of plutonium, if inhaled or ingested, can cause cancer.
Also plutonium, unlike salt or pepper, is invisible.
Rocky Flats was in my backyard, but our collective backyard — from Tokyo to Cincinnati to Denver to Benton County, Washington, home of Hanford, which housed nine nuclear reactors and is now one of the most heavily contaminated places on earth — is under similar threat. Interestingly, in 1991 when Congress approved closure of Fernald, an Ohio uranium processing facility, federal scientists conceded that no one could ever safely live there, and that the site would have to be closely monitored forever. The only absolute is the potential for tragedy.
Yet President Obama supports investment in nuclear energy, including two new nuclear power plants in Georgia.
The National Nuclear Security Administration wants to build a new facility to increase trigger production at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico. And in Colorado there’s a big push to build a highway and expand business and residential development on contaminated land. In spite of everything we’ve learned, profit continues to trump safety.
In 1995, the Department of Energy said it would take 50 years and $37 billion to clean up Rocky Flats, and it wasn’t sure the technology existed to do the job. The DoE later awarded a $3.5 billion contract to Kaiser-Hill to clean up the site.
The Energy Department based the standards for the cleanup project on the exposure level of a wildlife refuge worker rather than families and children.
Now, despite public opposition, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Except for the 1,300-acre portion of the site so drenched in plutonium that federal and state officials say it is not safe for human activity.
Rocky Flats is a beautiful area, with great mountain views, and supplies a perfect setting in which to reflect on nuclear safety and other twisted mythologies.
(The author is the director of the MFA programme at the University of Memphis, and author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.)