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We Had a Secret Nuclear Weapons Plant Near a Major American City? Yeah, One of the Most Contaminated Sites in America

A new book reveals the truth about a plutonium factory that hardly anyone knew existed.

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Then people in the community, we didn't know what was going on in terms of the production of plutonium pits and also the environmental contamination. You know, the rumor in the neighborhood -- it was operated by Dow Chemical -- so we thought they were making household cleaning supplies, like oven cleaner. My mother thought they were making Scrubbing Bubbles. So there are all sorts of reasons why you really don't want to believe that it could be otherwise. 

I think there's also a very strong interest in terms of property value. That's been a big part of the problem from the beginning as well. For home builders and businesses and city planners and managers to admit to any sort of contamination would have a profound affect not only on, you know, human health, which is most important of course, but also on property values, so that's been an issue as well.

BJ: You're very precise about the radioactivity and impact of plutonium, such as its incredibly long half-life. You repeat several times throughout the book how and why plutonium is so dangerous. For example, what it really means when we say plutonium-239 has a 24,000-year half-life -- that it will remain radioactive for 240,000 years. What was your motivation to touch on this multiple times throughout the book?

KI: I think one of the great ironies about how we talk about plutonium, particularly in Colorado, is that the Department of Energy and even the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will, on the one hand, admit to plutonium in the soil onsite and offsite around Rocky Flats. And we have no way of really determining exactly how much there is. It all has to be done through dose reconstruction and that sort of thing. Yet at the same time they will say, "Well, yes, there is plutonium in the rabbits, in the deer, in the cattle, in the grass, and it's dangerous. But it's also safe. Don't worry about it. It's at a level that we find acceptable."

That kind of language is very difficult to deal with and very difficult to know how to react to as a citizen, as a worker, as someone living in Colorado. What does this mean? How can you say it's dangerous and it's not dangerous at the same time? So I wanted to make plutonium – what it is and all of its effects – very, very clear to the reader.

BJ: Are you frustrated when you read news stories about the nuclear industry, nuclear safety or nuclear accidents, like at Fukushima, and they pass over these terms that the average person may not fully grasp -- such as when they merely allude to nuclear material having a 30-year or 100-year or 24,000-year half-life?

KI: I think that's exactly right. And it's information that people really need to know. They need to understand what it is and how it might affect their lives. From Fukushima, we saw radiation from Fukushima in milk -- just take milk, for example -- all over the United States, in various states across the country. They would report it and yet it's also accompanied with, as I said before, this kind of reassuring language. "Don't worry about it. It's kind of temporary."

And I think it's very important that people understand what plutonium is and how radioactivity works and how it can impact their lives. And particularly, long-term low-level radiation exposure, which is mostly what we have out at Rocky Flats and in the areas around Rocky Flats. In the past, the Department of Energy and Rockwell and Dow have tended to minimize that.

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