A report prepared for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Boulder, Colorado by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

Download the Full Report | Statement of Arjun Makhijani, IEER | Statement of Sriram Gopal, IEER | Statement of LeRoy Moore, Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center

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Cleanup of Nuclear Weapons Sites May Leave High Levels of Plutonium Levels in Soil

Precedent-Setting Process at Colorado’s Rocky Flats Plant Could Cause National Setback for Sound Environmental Health Rules, New Study Finds

Washington, D.C., December 11: The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is embarked on a process of setting standards for cleanup at its Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant that could result in unprecedented levels of plutonium being left at the site, according to a new report issued today. The report, Setting Cleanup Standards to Protect Future Generations: The Scientific Basis of Subsistence Farmer Scenario and Its Application to the Estimation of Radionuclide Soil Action Levels (RSALs) for Rocky Flats, was prepared for a Boulder Colorado group, the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER).

The report criticizes the DOE for proposing to use the impending designation of the site as a wildlife refuge to set cleanup standards which could result in high levels of plutonium being left behind in the soil after the site has been declared cleaned up. The traditional process for protecting people has been to assume that people might live on the site in the future and farm it. This provides a conservative, but reasonable upper estimate of the dose to future populations and would protect almost everyone else, since they would be exposed to lower amounts of radiation.

“The DOE is set to abandon a prudent, established method for estimating radiation doses to future generations,” said IEER president Dr. Arjun Makhijani, and principal author of the report. “Labeling a contaminated site as a wildlife refuge does not adequately protect health and the environment since we cannot forecast site uses far into the future.”

The half-life of plutonium-239 is over 24,000 years.

Setting Cleanup Standards details the historical development of how radiation protection standards for people and shows that the “subsistence farmer” approach was developed by official radiation protection authorities and advisory bodies in order to overcome the great uncertainties about future lifestyles, uses of land and water resources, dietary habits, and so on.

“We have no control over what will happen at Rocky Flats in the future,” said LeRoy Moore, a consultant to the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. “We have control only over what we can do today. If we cannot now remove all contaminants from the Rocky Flats environment, we nevertheless have a responsibility to clean the site as thoroughly as possible, for the sake of future generations. This responsibility is not diminished by the specific designation we may give the site today.”

The DOE has used widely differing levels of residual radioactivity in the soil in its cleanup operations, according to the report. At Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, the soil was cleaned up to a level of 17 picocuries per gram. The initial proposal for Rocky Flats was almost 40 times as high. A public outcry forced the DOE to fund an independent review of the plan. The Risk Assessments Corporation of Neeses, South Carolina, which performed that evaluation, recommended a level of about 35 picocuries per gram, almost 20 times lower than the original DOE proposal. That recommendation has not been accepted and no standard has yet been made public.

“Conservative approaches to setting up standards have been developed to protect people who have no way of knowing how much individual dose they may be getting,” said Sriram Gopal, Staff Scientist at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “Current laws are no guarantee that site use restrictions will hold for the very long periods of time involved. The historical record does not support such a view.”

The report discusses the immense uncertainties, including regulatory uncertainties, that must be addressed in setting standards. According to the report, the federal safe drinking water standards in effect today are a hundred times less strict in regard to plutonium than the State of Colorado’s standards for surface water purity. The report also concludes that federal safe drinking water standards for plutonium and other transuranic elements are based on obsolete methods of calculation.

“There needs to be better protection of the public from residual plutonium in the soil than would be provided by the course the DOE is on now,” said Dr. Makhijani. “It would be judicious to assume that future safe drinking water standards will reflect the best science that we know today rather than obsolete models. This means that far less plutonium in the soil will be tolerated.”

Proponents of designating contaminated sites as wildlife refuges have pointed out that higher levels of contamination keep people away, allowing wildlife to flourish. But the report notes that radiation causes genetic mutations, some of which are harmful, and that even if individual wildlife specimens are healthy that does not guarantee the health of species in the long-term.

“Cleaning Rocky Flats only to the level of a wildlife refuge leaves a more contaminated site to the wildlife a refuge supposedly would protect,” said Dr. Moore. “Not only will wildlife be less protected, but also they will become carriers of plutonium left in the soil to other locations, near and far. Moreover, cleaning to the level of a wildlife refuge sets the bad precedent of increasing risk by cutting cost.”