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Wolf writes: "... profit motives are driving the push to develop lands that, according to scientists, can never be inhabited safely again. And profit motives are driving an even more demented plan on a state-by-state level, astoundingly, to ship American schoolchildren into these no-go areas."

Rocky Flats nuclear facility workers in a plutonium storage area, 1988. (photo: US Dept of Energy)
Rocky Flats nuclear facility workers in a plutonium storage area, 1988. (photo: US Dept of Energy)

This Nuclear Folly

By Naomi Wolf, Guardian UK

22 February 12


n March 2011, novelist Kristen Iversen's memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, was waiting sedately among piles of other manuscripts at various publishing houses. Then, Japan was hit by a tsunami, and the cooling systems of the Fukushima nuclear reactor were overwhelmed, giving the world apocalyptic images of toxic floods and floating cars, of whole provinces made uninhabitable.

Immediately, Iversen's book was auctioned, and the timing of its publication, in June, could not be better - since, incredibly, in the shadow of the Fukushima disaster, and even as Japan and other nations see movements against the use of nuclear power ever again - President Obama is planning more investment in nuclear energy. The US is soon to start construction on several new reactors for the first time in three decades.

Iversen, a softspoken woman with a laid-back western vibe, wearing jeans and lavender scarf, seems an unlikely prophet of nuclear catastrophe. But her message is searing. She grew up in a small town near Rocky Flats, Colorado, where a secret nuclear weapons plant built over 70,000 plutonium "triggers" for nuclear bombs.

Iversen spoke with me this week about her research in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we were at a writer's conference. She explained that "triggers" was a euphemism: the plant, which, throughout her childhood, was so secret that her mother believed they made cleaning supplies, was actually producing plutonium "buttons". In other words, these were the nuclear bombs themselves; they needed only a casing of explosives to be activated.

"They made Nagasaki bombs in my backyard," she explains.

Unknown to the families living in the shadow of the classified facility, deadly plutonium particles were seeded among the stunning beauty of the mountain landscape. As Iversen grew up, she became aware of the growing incidence of bizarre cancers being diagnosed in local children. Iversen's reporting, extensive interviews, and review of FBI and EPA documents, shows how classifying a toxic nuclear site led to the ruin of hundreds of lives - and continues to pose ever-escalating threats as the legacy of what we know about such nuclear contamination is being swept under the rug by developers, energy lobbyists and government agencies colluding with them, at the risk of exposing more of us, more severely.

The nature of the cover-up is incredible: in 1989, the FBI joined forces with the EPA to raid on the plant. The plant, in turn, was owned by the Department of Energy.

"It's the only time in the history of our country that, to my knowledge, two government agencies have raided another," notes Iversen. A grand jury investigation followed the raid, and jurors called for indictments against Rockwell, the manufacturer, and Department of Energy officials. In spite of this, not one indictment was ever issued. The jurors, furious, actually wrote their own report on the contamination and the suppression of the facts - which, astoundingly, still remains under seal.

But cancer rates are telling the tale: they remain elevated in neighborhoods around Rocky Flats 30 years on (plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years). Recent tests confirm earlier findings: there is still contamination in the soil.

Although there is a scientific consensus that no exposure is safe, no matter how brief, Iversen reports:

"There's a big push in Denver right now to build a highway, the Jefferson Parkway, on the contaminated area. This is all prime real estate and many developers and city politicians are pushing to develop the area and pretend that Rocky Flats never existed."

So, profit motives are driving the push to develop lands that, according to scientists, can never be inhabited safely again. And profit motives are driving an even more demented plan on a state-by-state level, astoundingly, to ship American schoolchildren into these no-go areas.

Clean-up of nuclear contamination is expensive, and laws allow an area to remain as is, with high levels of contaminants in the soil, so long as they are designated "wildlife refuges". To save money and effort, the US government, as well as individual state governments around the country, are now pushing to turn former nuclear weapons sites around the nation into wildlife refuges, which schoolchildren would be taken to visit on class trips.

Nuclear scientists Iversen interviewed are horrified by these plans, arguing that these areas should be permanently closed off to the public and declared "National Sacrifice Zones". And as if enough damage had not been done, a new nuclear pit production facility is planned for Los Alamos, Texas, with the capability of producing up to 450 plutonium triggers per year.

Although the accident at Fukushima raised global awareness about the lasting, overwhelming dangers to human beings of radioactive contamination, the money that the energy lobby sees in building more nuclear facilities is just too good to rein in, catastrophe or no catastrophe. US energy policy, driven by industry lobbyists, remains committed to developing nuclear power, even as nations around the world are canceling their own nuclear plans: last month alone, Germany spent $2.15tn to abandon nuclear power, a decision taken after witnessing Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster.

"At a time when the world is supposed to be decreasing the nuclear arsenal, our government is talking about producing nuclear triggers again. We need to pay attention," warns Iversen.

While the rest of the world, especially countries whose legislatures are less dominated by special interests, do the sane thing regarding nuclear power and the threat of catastrophe, the US scampers merrily in the direction of madness. President Obama recently announced - as if this were a good thing - that the Department of Energy has given the green light to an $8bn loan guarantee program to build two, brand new nuclear power plants in Georgia. This, in spite of scientific warnings about dangers posed by those plants' risk to local residents by nuclear waste disposal issues.

There have been numerous nuclear disasters or near-disasters, besides Fukushima, in recent decades: they include the Mayak facility in Russia, as well as spills and contamination at other former nuclear weapons sites around the United States such as Hanford and Fernald.

Iversen, who has family members who've experienced tumors and other cancer scares, worries about her own health. For her, the time to sound the alarm about America's plans for a new generation of nuclear facilities is now.

"One fact is for sure: there is no safe level of exposure to plutonium. One millionth of a gram, particularly if it is inhaled into the lungs, can cause cancer.

"Rocky Flats happened in my backyard. [This will be] happening in everyone's backyard." your social media marketing partner


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+78 # Andrew Hansen 2012-02-22 13:01
It is a failed government that sacrifices people for profit/benefit of a few. This case being irreversible is even more painful than the myriad of the last two decades.

It is a failed society that does not turn such a government back.
+91 # wantrealdemocracy 2012-02-22 13:18
Folly? It is INSANITY! The terrible level of greed that saturates the top 1% is beyond belief!! They will kill us all and all life on earth for a few more bucks in their financial portfolio. Their kids will suffer as will they. Cancer is what is in their own future and all those numbers on a bank statement won't mean a damn thing. We must all join the Occupy movement and attempt to form a democracy in the United States.
+60 # capnDave 2012-02-22 13:26
Need I mention Love Canal ? Recent reports from France document increased levels of leukemia in children living
around nuclear plants. Even in Grand Junction, CO
subdivisions were built on top of uranium tailings.
+56 # sandyboy 2012-02-22 14:07
This exposes the stupidity of Rick Santorum's recent rant that the earth is here to serve man and not the reverse. We live on the earth, so turning it into a toxic wasteland will destroy US as well as IT. Ironic that he was dissing Obama for being too caring of earth when he's the very man letting nuke madness occur. And we threaten Iran!?!
+30 # Buddha 2012-02-22 17:41
I'd love to sit with Santorum and show him photos from Fukashima, and from the Gulf oil spill and ask him directly: "Is this good stewardship of the Earth"? Not that I'd get an intelligent answer from this programmed Bible-thumping Torquemada.
+14 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-22 20:39
I would prefer to take him on site of all the contaminated sites, he has seen the pictures. Now it is time they all go and eat at these sites with their families. Prove to us that all these sites, these Monsanto Foods, the Frack water is safe.
Then I will move on. They will not and I would love to hear where are these writers here not asking those questions. I have given invites accross the takers
+7 # 666 2012-02-23 06:05
I'd love to ship all those idiots to fukashima and rocky flats and hanford and let them play in the dirt for a while
+10 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-22 20:37
Not exactly very smart to say as a supposed one who promotes wanting children to be born? Yes let us have children and expose them to man's poisons.
I do not remember God or Jesus ever saying the Earth belonged to man buy our borrowing it. However, the Bible writers left out that it was to be kept as it was not destroyed by anyone. God also has a commandment about Thou Shalt Not Kill as does other Holy Books but it gets under published.

Again let us see these Politicians and their families live on top of these poisons, drink the water, eat the food. Be our examples or leave the Country once and for all Traitors
+31 # CandH 2012-02-22 14:31
So these new plants plans/developme nt in GA and TX are all approved/vetted /inspected/docu mented by the IAEA, right? All is "proper" with them too, right? We can read all about it in a Report somewhere?

"The nature of the cover-up is incredible: in 1989, the FBI joined forces with the EPA to raid on the [Rocky Flats] plant. The plant, in turn, was owned by the Department of Energy."

And the IAEA knew about this one, inspected it, approved it, got full access to it too, right? The Report on this one is just an internets page away, right?
+14 # tedrey 2012-02-22 15:33
Right. Another clear case of profit trumping safety. See readersupported 98-new-us-nucle ar-plants-appro ved
+12 # AndreM5 2012-02-22 17:05
The IAEA does not inspect our nuclear facilities. It is an agency of the United Nations. Our own Nuclear Regulatory Commission and EPA do the inspections in the USA.
+23 # QuestionsQuestions 2012-02-22 14:44
I lived in Colorado back in the '70s, and even then it was well known that plutonium was getting out - even the water supply for surrounding towns was contaminated. Since plutonium sticks around FOREVER, it's certainly no solution to leave it around for the wildlife to take up and spread further!

So now they're also building a facility at the Savanna River "national sacrifice zone" in SC to convert tons of excess bomb plutonium into power plant fuel, though of course we still have no clue how to dispose of the radioactive spent fuel (which likely will still contain plutonium). The stupidity never ceases....
+5 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-22 20:42
Out west the Plutonium drinkers want all wildlife dead so that only Cattle will live. I am hoping the Cattle go first...but then all the Beef Eaters go with them...ya hoo Burger King, Wendy's etc explain that to the kids.
Of course we are killing children now with corn crap, GMO's we can thank General Mills, StoneyField and so many more

Puts a whole new text on mmmmgoood...par ents do not care
+30 # cokacoa2 2012-02-22 15:14
We still are unable to clean up Hanford, WA from the waste of the Manhattan Project (WWII) and we have been trying to do so since the 50's. There's at least 100 square miles of contaminated ground water at that site that we have no idea what to do about. It is utterly nuts.
+14 # Helen Marshall 2012-02-22 15:19
Ms Wolf means Los Alamos, New Mexico I would imagine, where the original development of the Bomb occurred. If there's one in Texas it's not on my maps.

Of course we don't ask for international approval, we rule the Universe!!!
+16 # Nominae 2012-02-22 15:24
Ms. Wolfe -

One hopes that your grasp and reporting on nuclear physics is superior to your reporting on U.S. Geography.

When you inform us that a "new nuclear pit production facility is planned for Los Alamos, Texas ....." A couple of facts come to mind.

1. A Bing search shows the existence of no such place as "Los Alamos, Texas".

2. There *is* a Los Alamos National Labratory (LANL) known to design, and previously to have built, nuclear weapons, located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. LANL is *already* a nuclear pit production facility. Nothing "new" about it.

Aside from the geographical errors, it seems that you might know that nuclear weapons triggers are not made of plutonium. Triggers are made of conventional explosives. Plutonium is used only for the "payload".

If Rocky Flats was indeed producing weapons, those weapons were levels of magnitude larger than the "baby bomb" released on Nagasaki.

The Hiroshima bomb was .89 of one megaton. Compare that to the massive nuclear yields of weaponry today.

This is an important story. This breathless and slip-shod lack of fact checking and the nebulous and inaccurate description of the subject matter at hand is inexcusable. It leads readers to take less seriously a matter that could not *be* more serious. If you are going to take on a subject of this gravity, please take also the time to do it justice.
+15 # QuestionsQuestions 2012-02-22 17:04
Well, actually the "triggers" ARE made of plutonium (formerly done at Rocky Flats) -slamming it together causes a fission explosion, which triggers the fusion of hydrogen. Hence, an "H" bomb. The "pit" trigger is not a whole lot different than the "Fat Boy" dropped on Nagasaki - just a whole lot smaller!
(and no, none of this is classified info at this point.) God knows why we would need any more of them at this point!

And there is another nuke weapons facility in Texas, though in Amarillo - likely another "national sacrifice zone" in the making. This may be what the author was thinking of. So other than the Los Alamos slip, the author appears to have a better grasp on the subject than you.
+1 # Nominae 2012-02-23 13:18
@ QuestionsQuesti ons

My basic point is, that with the kind of convoluted writing demonstrated in this article, there is no way of *knowing* what the author *actually* means. This problem used to be overcome by the use of copy readers and editors.

The reader is left to "guess and interpret" as you and I are caught up doing, with no possible way of settling the question of what the author "may be ..... thinking of". Only clear and concise writing can prevent that problem arising from a "reporter". Otherwise the reader is forced to "interpret" every last thing they read which is simply weak guessing.

Re: your description of triggers, you are correct that two fissionable masses, (both less than critical mass), are kept separate in a warhead. When the warhead is triggered, the wall separating these two fissionable masses is destroyed by means of a conventional explosive. This *initiates* the "slamming" together of the two units of plutonium, creating the required critical mass and provoking the process that you describe.

However, I am not playing a game of "compare the nuclear knowledge", I am simply calling for authors, copy readers and editors to perform their traditional functions so that readers are not left with more QuestionsQuesti ons about what the author coulda-woulda-s houlda meant than answers which the reader cannot, by definition, provide.
+5 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-22 20:44
You should be writing
+9 # reiverpacific 2012-02-22 18:13
It's all part of a national and international insanity that pretty much invites an apocalyptic end to the human race before it even gets to become a Type 1 civilization (we are at about 0.7 right now as designated by Michio Kaku and other theoretical Physicists in tracing and predicting the possibilities set against probabilities of the species for long-term survival, one being conditional on the folly of relatively early self-destructio n).
Seems like power-seeking and greed = hatred of life and disregard for our delicate balance and our good fortune to live in a tiny "Goldilocks Zone" of even the possibility for the evolution of "intelligent life" as we know it -and I use the latter parentheses deliberately.
Of course there's always the "Rapture" to come, what!?
+8 # cordleycoit 2012-02-22 19:56
The State of Colorado specially speaking of Jefferson County is one of the more quietly corrupt places in the American West.Jefferson County is famous for inept prosecutors, chicken hawk sheriffs and armies of repug real estate agents who will sell to a bridge. For many years a verity of publications tried to get the patterns of contamination from Rocky Flats which left a plum and doom of Plutonium and other radioactive ingredients in bomb making. In the sixties I saw a very classified black and white of the trails of radioactive waste into Jefferson and Boulder County. The government knew that they were dooming tens of thousands in the ever growing plume; carried home by the people who worked there on their tires clothing and person.None of the people of the left dare speak out not even in the People's Republic of Boulder.
+7 # JackCJ 2012-02-22 23:40
Actually, the "left" DID speak out in the mid-70's, including a full year of civil disobedience at Rocky Flats in 1978-1979. I was a co-defendant in a show trial in November, 1978. Today, members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder are leading the effort to get testing for plutonium dust done in the Jefferson Parkway right-of-way downwind from Rocky Flats. See:
+7 # 2012-02-22 20:23
Here's another interesting factoid about Rocky Flats. When the plant was active, they had deep wells (not exactly sure what the purpose of them was--I guess they were injecting water from the plant into the ground). In any case, every time they pumped water into the wells, the seismographs in the area showed low level seismic shocks. The pumped fluid was acting as a lubricant. My sister-in-law and nephew spent some time outside the fence protesting the plant. Too bad Einstein ever sent the letter to Roosevelt about atomic energy. We'd be a lot better off without it. The energy is great, but the bi-products are awful.
+3 # JackCJ 2012-02-22 23:44
Rocky Flats, the nuclear weapons factory NW of Denver, is not to be confused with the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a distinct facility on the east side of Denver. It was at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal where experimental waste disposal in the 1960s by pressure injection into deep wells triggered the series of seismic shocks refer to.
+3 # Regina 2012-02-23 12:59
Einstein sent that letter at the urging of physicists who realized the possibility of nuclear explosion. They were not yet thinking about "atomic energy," just WWII and the chances that Germany would get to a bomb first. Luckily for us, German physicists made some mistakes in their calculations as well as designs, and got nowhere. After the war, Einstein was quoted as saying, "If I had known that the Germans would fail, I wouldn't have lifted a finger."
+11 # larry darnell 2012-02-22 20:47
It is a shame those who dismiss the danger do not have a personal stake in the game. As government officials should be housed downwind from coal plants and on toxic waste dumps, they should get to visit nuclear sites on a regular basis.
+6 # KittatinyHawk 2012-02-22 20:48
Since we have this going, we do want terrorists to know everything. Government at its finest.
Where are all the Plutonium Plants? I know we have Uranium mined in NorthEast, it has been on the road for decades passing thru everywhere. North east is also the larger shipper of Nuke Waste from Canada and downward to Landfill that is not doing so good anymore.
Cancer on the rise, kids not as healthy, wow what a dream Democracy.
+7 # 2012-02-22 21:39
I can see Los Alamos from my house in Santa Fe, NM. The word "trigger" has long commonly been used for plutonium pits, the fissile cores of nuclear weapons that the Rocky Flats Plant produced until the 1989 FBI raid. Pits are surrounded by conventional high explosives, which together are then often called primaries. When detonated, the pit in the primary is compressed into a critical mass causing atomic fission, which then induces nuclear fusion in "secondaries," resulting in the immensely destructive yield of modern thermonuclear weapons.

The article also errs in saying that "a new nuclear pit production facility is planned… with the capability of producing up to 450 plutonium triggers per year." Those plans were defeated by citizen activism and its lack of clear need in the mid-2000's. Since then, the Department of Energy successively floated options for producing 250, then 125, then up to 80 pits per year. These were similarly defeated, most dramatically resulting just last week in the Obama Administration indefinitely postponing a ~$5 billion plutonium “Nuclear Facility” that would have directly supported expanded production. At this point in time, the Los Alamos Lab remains officially limited to a production level of not more than 20 pits per year, while in reality there are none currently scheduled for the foreseeable future.


Jay Coghlan
Nuclear Watch New Mexico
+6 # JohnRussell2012 2012-02-22 21:43
In Crystal River Florida the SECOND Most EXPENSIVE U.S. NUCLEAR DISASTER in history behind Three Mile Island continues...

Progress Energy with a demonstrated incompetence that boggle even the most senile mind... now is attempting to have insurance cover their penny pinching myopic management plan to repair a deteriorating reactor that went awry as predicted... By BOTH Internal and External Consultants. In addition, we have written confirmation from Congressman Richard Nugent that there are stored at Crystal River over 1,300 spent fuel rod assemblies... each "assembly" composed of 176 fuel rods!

The potential for MEGA-DISASTER IN Florida is right here and shows no sign of being made safe anytime soon given the very short-sighted energy policy out of Washington fomented by corporate lobbyist influence. JR
+9 # 2012-02-22 21:57
(cont.) Nevertheless the U.S. nuclear weapons complex remains anxious to extensively modify existing nuclear weapons and endow them with new military capabilities. Since 2009, when Congress rejected funding for proposed new-designs, the nuclear weaponeers seek to achieve their aims incrementally and help ensure their own institutional survival through perpetual “Life Extension Programs.”

We need to guard against this because: 1) of the innate tendency to stray from the tested pedigree of existing nuclear weapons, perhaps raising fears about “reliability,” possibly leading to renewed full-scale testing; and 2) if we are ever to seriously progress toward the Obama’s Administration declared goal of a future nuclear weapons-free world, this nation should focus more on tried and true engineering methods of stockpile maintenance rather than exorbitantly expensive “science” that serves a privileged nuclear weapons priesthood.

Life Extension Programs also block the accelerated dismantlement of 1,000’s of retired nuclear weapons at NNSA assembly/disass embly facilities. Those dismantlements would dramatically improve our own security (including large costs savings), and provide tangible proof of progress toward a future world free of nuclear weapons, the only weapons that can truly threaten our own national survival.

Jay Coghlan
Nuclear Watch New Mexico
0 # Nominae 2012-02-25 02:47

Thank you for the technical clarification on modern trigger design and function.

Thank you as well for outlining your efforts at Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Kudos on both.
0 # RJB 2012-02-26 07:20
The 1% is the cancer.
0 # Larkrise 2012-02-26 19:03
Santorum is not the President. Obama is. He has supported nuclear energy from the beginning of his career in Illinois. One of the big nuclear energy outfits in Illinois has given him major campaign donations. He has appointed people to his cabinet that fully support nuclear energy and are cheerleaders for it. Obama,joined at the hip with corporate interests, is going ahead with more plans for nuclear energy. There are no truly new plans on how to dispose of the waste. We are kept in the dark about cancer clusters and infant abnormalities and miscarriages, among other ailments. We seldom hear about them until there is a major uproar; and the truth can no longer be hidden. This is one of the main reasons I cannot vote for Obama.Certainly , the Republicans are insane, truly insane. However, we are going to go to Hell in a handbasket under Obama, too. Maybe not as fast, but just the same. I have a conscience; and I must answer to it. I will vote for state candidates; but not for Barack Obama. He lacks ethics and compassion. He is condemning more children to cancer by his actions. I will NOT vote for that. We turned this country into a war machine in 1942. We had to do so. We can turn this country around to produce green, clean energy in less than a decade, if the corporate fat cats and corrupt politicians did not rule the roost. It is due to greed and selfishness, power-lust and arrogance that we are in dire circumstances. Too many of us refuse to see how dire it is.

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