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The very dangerous history of making plutonium weapons triggers – “pits” at Rocky Flats

Dangerous history of pit production  https://www.aikenstandard.com/opinion/guest-column-dangerous-history-of-pit-production/article_a22aa6b8-4ab2-11e9-83dc-7b695e05d8a7.html Dr. Rose O. Hayes

Recent comments on the proposed pit production at Savannah River Site warrant a cautionary comment. All is not wonderful news where pit production is concerned. It has a very dirty past. Awareness of that past is paramount to the protection of CSRA public health and safety.

The primary U.S. plant to smelt plutonium, purify it and shape it into “triggers” (pits) for nuclear bombs was Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Site. From 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats manufactured more than 70,000 pits at a cost of nearly $4 million apiece. Each one contained enough breathable plutonium particles to kill every person on earth. Virtually all of the waste produced there remains on-site. As we have learned through the SRS waste storage struggles, there is no place for it to go and no government plan to develop a repository. What’s made at a nuclear processing plant, stays at the nuclear processing plant.

Much went wrong at Rocky Flats due to mismanagement, criminal government indifference and public complacency. It took more than 30 years for the public to become so concerned with the pollution hazards issuing from the plant before the Department of Energy (DOE) was forced to hold a public meeting in 1988 to address the problems. One example: The plant produced one boxcar a week packed with 140 drums of radioactive waste. They were parked on site. Moisture penetration of a drum could have triggered an explosion. Ground water, soil and air pollution were also major hazards. A subsequent DOE study indicated that Rocky Flats was the most dangerous site in the country.

On June 6, 1989 more than 70 FBI and EPA agents raided the plant to begin an official investigation of the contractor and DOE for environmental crimes. The plant manager acknowledged that problems were solved “when DOE wanted to pay for them.” The final FBI/EPA allegations included concealment of environmental contamination, false certification of federal environmental reports, improper storage and disposal of hazardous and radioactive waste, and illegal discharge of pollutants into creeks flowing to drinking water supplies. Another independent study found there was enough lost plutonium in the plant exhaust ducts to create the possibility of an accidental nuclear reaction. According to a later DOE report, about 62 pounds of plutonium was lost in the plant air ducts; enough for seven nuclear bombs.

A grand jury was convened to hear the case on Aug. 1, 1989. The contractor argued in court that it could not fulfill its DOE contract without also violating environmental laws. In order to remediate the damage, on Sept. 28, 1989, EPA added Rocky Flats to its Superfund cleanup list. The grand jury worked until May 1991, then voted to indict the plant contractor, five employees and three individuals working for DOE.

The Department of Justice refused to sign the indictments despite more than 400 environmental violations that occurred during the decades of pit production at the plant. All charges were dropped. A settlement guaranteed the contractor and all indicted individuals immunity. Although the contractor pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the federal hazardous waste law and the Clean Water Act, the fine was only $18.5 million, less than the corporation had collected in bonuses for meeting production quotas that year. The contractor’s annual fee to run the site was estimated at $10 million, with an additional $8.7 million paid from DOE for management and safety excellence.

The contractor was also allowed to sue for reimbursement of $7.9 million from taxpayers for fees and costs related to its case. In addition, the contractor’s plea agreement indemnified it from further claims and all future prosecution, criminal or civil. The trial records are permanently sealed. Further, the contractor argued that everything it did at Rocky Flats was at the behest of DOE and maintained the right to receive future government contracts.

Grand jury members asked to write their own report but the judge refused to read it or release it to the public. Not surprisingly, the report was leaked to the press and printed in a Denver newspaper and Harper’s magazine. In January 1993, a Congressional committee finally issued a report revealing evidence of high-level intervention by Justice Department officials for the purpose of reducing the contractor’s fines.

DOE has estimated that it will take until 2065 to clean up Rocky Flats, at a cost to American taxpayers of more than $40 billion. One DOE official testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that some weapons plants, like Rocky Flats, may never be cleaned up because we lack the technology to do so at a reasonable cost. Another investigator, testifying before the U.S. Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee, stated he did not believe it possible to reverse the harm done at Rocky Flats.

Could this history repeat itself at SRS? Without a comprehensive cradle to grave plan with built-in irrevocable government funding and independent oversight, including citizen stakeholder input, SRS could become the next Rocky Flats. How likely is the government to attach such planning and funding to an SRS pit processing campaign? Past experience at SRS includes years of having to do best guess planning under continuing resolution funding and government failures to pass a budget, decades of “temporarily” storing deadly radioactive waste due to the government’s failure to meet off-site disposition commitments, budget reductions, program cancellations (most recently, the MOX project), and more.

Plutonium pit production waste is not just radioactive. It is nuclear waste on steroids. If produced here, it will likely remain in our backyard, along with all the decades old waste at SRS. There is no place for it to go. Looming large as examples of the dangers and difficulties SRS will face in having pit production waste moved off-site are the explosion and prolonged closure at the New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (the government’s only operating repository) and the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain project.

Is it the CSRA’s responsibility to take on this mission? Pit production, while bringing jobs to the Aiken/Augusts area, will add to the decades old SRS hazards waiting for DOE remediation. SRS is already part of the DOE nuclear complex cleanup program. That mission, 30 some years old, drags on under the burden of DOE mismanagement and variable federal funding. Estimates are it will take another 70 years to clean up the DOE nuclear complex and cost about $500 billion more. Celebration of plans to add U.S. pit production to SRS is a rush to judgement. Only the usual corporations, living large off gigantic federal awards, stand to benefit.

Dr. Rose O. Hayes is a medical anthropologist who spent her career in public health. She holds a B.S., M.S., M.A., and Ph.D. from SUNY and completed post-doctoral work in skeletal biology at The George Washington University. From 2009 to 2015, she served on the U.S. Department of Energy Site-Specific Advisory Board for the Savannah River plant, chairing its Nuclear Materials Committee. 

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April 1, 2019 - Posted by | - plutonium, history, legal, Reference, safety, USA

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