A Mountain Of Rubble - Rocky Flats Cleanup
By Terje Langeland
By the year 2006, all the old nuclear-bomb production facilities at Rocky Flats are supposed to be demolished and gone forever, along with hundreds of other buildings on the site.
But in reality, many of the buildings may never be completely gone.
The problem is, demolishing buildings doesn't make them disappear; it just turns them into piles of rubble. And when you've got more than 700 structures to knock down, that's one big pile.
So to deal with the problem, the Department of Energy has come up with a proposed solution: bury the rubble on-site.
This solution would help solve another problem, the DOE says. When two large structures built partly underground are demolished five or six years from now, it will create two big holes in the ground, which will need to be filled.
It makes sense — and saves money — to use the rubble to fill those holes, rather than hauling the rubble to an off-site landfill and then purchasing vast amounts of fill material elsewhere, the DOE says.
The rubble in question would be “clean” concrete, not radioactive waste, said John Rampe, the site's deputy assistant manager for environment and infrastructure.
Nonetheless, the plan is causing concern among some area citizens and local governments, who say the DOE has promised not to bury waste on-site but to remove it all.
“It's setting a precedent,” said Mary Harlow of the city of Westminster. “We've never had anything buried on-site” as part of the clean-up program.
The Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, which includes the city of Boulder, is concerned enough that it is hiring its own consultant to examine the plan, Harlow said.
Some observers are also concerned about plans to leave in place the foundations of the underground structures before filling them with rubble. And others worry because the rubble would sit in huge piles outdoors on the site for at least five years before being used.
“It's a long time for it to sit out there,” Harlow said. “It's exposed to the elements.”
Blowing in the Wind?
According to Rampe, large amounts of rubble will be generated beginning this fall, as demolition work on the site begins to pick up speed.
The DOE estimates it will generate 131,000 cubic meters of concrete rubble. Of this, 28,700 cubic meters is expected to be classified as low-level radioactive waste, separated out and shipped to the Nevada Test Site, 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
That leaves an estimated 111,000 cubic meters of “clean” rubble — the equivalent of an 84-foot-high pile covering an entire football field.
Even if the DOE goes through with its plan, much of this rubble will have nowhere to go for years. The two underground structures where the rubble would be used aren't scheduled to be demolished for another five to six years.
“We would probably be using this fill, and I am approximating here, in the 2004-2005 time frame,” Rampe said.
In the meantime, the rubble would be stored in uncovered piles on the site.
That's a thought that worries Ken Werth, a citizen activist from Arvada, who worries about the area's infamous high winds.
“These 100-mph winds ... that's going to pick up a lot of dust from these piles,” Werth said. “I'm afraid it's going to be spread all over Arvada and Westminster.”
Rampe, however, said the piles will be sprayed with a solution to create a coating that will keep any dust from blowing.
“We think we can control it,” Rampe said.
Even if dust were to blow, it would not be significantly radioactive, according to Rampe. The rubble will meet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's “free-release” standard, under which materials are considered to have so little radioactivity that they are approved for any use, he said.
For the “clean” rubble, this will translate into less than 0.05 picocuries of alpha radiation per gram, Rampe said. By comparison, Rocky Flats' background alpha radiation — the amount that naturally occurs in the environment — is about 25 picocuries per gram, he said.
“We really feel that this is a very safe, conservative standard to use,” Rampe said. “Anybody could take this material and do anything with it.”
`No safe level'
Such numbers do not reassure everyone, however. Even if the numbers are accurate, many anti-nuclear activists — and a growing number of scientists — believe that even the smallest doses of radiation can be harmful.
“They'll argue that this is a small amount, but it is an amount,” said LeRoy Moore of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder. “The BEIR V study (by the National Academy of Sciences) takes the position that there's no safe level of radiation.”
Moore, who advocates storing Rocky Flats waste in a safe, retrievable form on-site, said he felt torn over the proposal to bury the rubble.
“I am opposed to putting radioactive materials in the environment,” Moore said. “I certainly wouldn't be happy with them taking it to a dump somewhere ... I suspect that there's not anything that's going to please me completely.”
Many environmentalists say that's exactly the problem with nuclear cleanup: No matter what you do with radioactive waste, it will never go away. Plutonium, the most notorious of the wastes, remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
“There's no way to clean up that site, in the sense that what was created ... will never go away,” said Eugene DeMayo of the Sierra Club.
Although it's leaving Rocky Flats, the 28,700 cubic meters of contaminated rubble that's being shipped to Nevada is still a concern to people like Moore. A recent study found that plutonium from the Nevada Test Site — where the contaminated rubble is to be buried — had migrated nearly a mile from the site through groundwater.
Other demolition debris, such as wood and drywall, may go to the Erie landfill, and some metal may be recycled, which means it could enter the commercial market and be turned into anything from car parts to spoons. While this material would be considered “clean” by government standards, it's a concern to those who believe even the smallest doses of radiation are harmful.
Dirty soil suspected
Unlike Moore, DeMayo said he didn't have a problem with the concept of using “clean” rubble as fill on-site, provided it's really clean.
However, DeMayo said he was concerned about plans to leave some building foundations in place.
“My concern is what's underneath the foundation, and if that's not as clean as the rubble, that's not acceptable,” he said.
Some of the foundations are suspected to have high levels of contamination underneath them. That includes Building 771, a plutonium production facility where a major fire occurred in 1957.
Contractors are supposed to remove from Rocky Flats any soil that is contaminated above a certain level, and if tests determine that the soil underneath the foundations needs to be removed, the foundations will have to go as well. That, in turn, would generate more rubble.
Although the DOE is openly promoting the plan to bury “clean” rubble on-site, a final decision has not been made.
A proposed decision document is currently being drafted and will be sent out for public comment and approval by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state health department, Rampe said. The DOE has already solicited preliminary input from the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board and local governments in the area.
A formal comment period for the proposal will likely take place in mid-April to June, and the final decision could be made by Aug. 1, Rampe said.
Rampe said the plan would save an estimated $35 million compared with disposing of all the rubble off-site. It would also dramatically reduce the number of estimated outbound truck shipments, from 23,600 loads of rubble to just 6,200 loads, he said.
“It's a good recycling plan, we think,” Rampe said