Environmental Information Network

The Danger of Prescribed Burns at Nuclear Sites & Nuclear Wildlife Refuges

Paula Elofson-Gardine and Susan Hurst
Wednesday, March 14, 2001

In the year 2000, there was a policy change by DOE, to "outsource" certain management aspects of the sites, by having the National Fire Service manage a program for prescribed burns. This includes DOE nuclear facilities such as: Los Alamos, Hanford, INEEL, Rocky Flats, and Savannah River for "weed control and thatch reduction", instead of mowing, cutting, or use of grazing animals to control vegetation. In the case of Rocky Flats, the thatch was not reduced by the burn. It appears that these burns are really intended for the purposes of getting rid of contaminated vegetation to prepare these sites for rapid rehabilitation, possible future development, or wildlife refuges, as currently proposed by Colorado Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Mark Udall. These "feel good nuclear petting zoos" may include hiking trails and walking tours for field trips for school children to observe wildlife habitat. For 50 years, they cut and mowed the vegetation, calling it hand management.

Allard and Udall had their kick-off press conference announcing the proposed legislation last September, while standing in the north eastern Rocky Flats Superfund Site "plutonium nitrate field" from the leaking plutonium process waste solar evaporation ponds. A Rocky Flats research cattle herd grazed near this area for 3 months. Tissue from these cattle were compared to tissues from cattle that grazed year round at the Nevada test site. The Rocky Flats cattle were found to be radiologically hotter, due to the radioactive dust resuspension, vegetation uptake, and exterior adsorption of radioactive contaminants. See excerpts of this study at: http://members.aol.com/magnu96196/EINHome.html   These are examples of some of the problems of this, and other nuclear sites. Burning radiologically contaminated vegetation causes alpha particles to be inhaled and absorbed by the lungs and lymph nodes. Rocky Flats is the only DOE nuclear facility with a one mile buffer zone to protect the 3.5+ million residents in the Denver metro area, with the closest house being 0.5 miles from the east gate.

Realistic cleanup timelines for many DOE nuclear sites have been scrapped so that DOE could "reduce the mortgage", and get out from these sites sooner so the land can be returned to the public. When the cleanup time is reduced by 50 years, many corners are cut. Burning off vegetation is a innovative means to "cleanup" widespread contamination in the areas surrounding these sites. Unfortunately, it merely moves it off the sites and into nearby communities.

The President is currently considering a national policy promoting prescribed burns for vegetation control across the U.S. Community health should be the highest priority. The President, or Congress should mandate that prescribed burns for vegetation control at or around DOE nuclear sites be permanently banned. Mr. President, "Just say No". Protect the health of the nation, elders, and children. Last year, in the case of Los Alamos, the National Fire Service had been warned of the danger due to high winds. They were advised not to burn at Los Alamos. They were determined to go forward with it - and it resulted in an unprecedented disaster of biblical proportions. Afterward, they claimed that despite over 50 years of releases and fallout from the facility to the surrounding environs, that there had been no significant contamination transfers by smoke to local communities. This scene was eerily repeated at each of the most highly contaminated DOE sites, Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Lab, Savannah River, and Rocky Flats. Afterward, DOE, EPA, and local health departments announced that there was no danger to the public. There were no significant releases of radioactive or chemical contaminants occurred. This was viewed with incredulity from citizens living near these sites.

At Rocky Flats, in April of 2000, a "prescribed burn" of 500 acres was reduced to a "test burn" of 50 acres, due to the furor from local cities and nearby residents. Rocky Flats personnel refused to collect materials and burn this under controlled laboratory conditions (a burn box) to see what was held up in this vegetation and ash. It was burned in the open, with a huge cloud lifting up and traveling up to Boulder, up the canyons, east past Thornton, and all along the front range, south past Golden and Lakewood. Ash acts as a concentrating mechanism of contaminants, and was not tested afterward, as requested by citizens.

We have a Radalert, which is a real time hand-held radiation monitor that measures Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and "X" radiation. Before the Rocky Flats Rx burn, "background" radiation (from above ground nuclear testing) was previously established as between 8 to 15 counts per minute (CPM) on this monitor. There was a KMGH Channel 7 film crew at our place filming an interview, when an observer at the site called: the fire service personnel had started the burn, with a giant brown and gray cloud lifting to mixing height and moving out toward the suburbs. In under 40 minutes, this smoke cloud traveled 14 miles through the metro area, south to Lakewood. It was visible from our 2nd floor as it spread over the metro area. Our phone rang nonstop from people in each suburb calling in alarm.

Our radiation monitor readings started going up and did not return to "normal to high range" for over several weeks. It kept reaching the highest level of detection, then had to be reset. The person filming the interview was shocked to see that not only could they see the thick smoke, smell it (like a forest fire), the radiation monitor did its job and measured the fact that there was radioactivity contained in the smoke. What were our readings? As any good scientist would, we discarded readings that appeared to exceed the highest limits of our monitor, because it did not stabilize. It went up to 18,000, then 19,999 cpm. Local citizens noted metallic taste in their mouths from the smoke. The readings that were stable enough to be kept as good data, exceeded 4,260 cpm. That is extremely high in anyone's opinion, and it was not the highest reading we obtained - 19,999! The next day it went down to 1,147 cpm, and steadily declined over the next few weeks. The "background" of the metro area has been raised by about 10 cpm that has persisted for nearly a year now. We attribute this to the RF Rx burn, and ongoing demolition at Rocky Flats of plutonium buildings, as concrete acts like a sponge for radiation. Readings taken around the metro Denver area in the last week, now range from 20 to 39 cpm. We did not have extremely high readings like those obtained the week of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility vegetation burn, or since.

There is no "official" evidence of what exactly was in that smoke. Unofficially, we know from our extensive knowledge of this site, and our monitor readings, that there were highly radioactive constituents released into the communities from this fire. Should they be allowed to burn off the entire 6,000+ acre buffer zone as planned? Absolutely not. This kind of "land management" must be banned at nuclear facilities. This illustrates the need for funded citizen radiation monitoring networks to be in place in the communities around these facilities. Should these areas be allowed to be renamed to hide the real nature of the hazards? Wildlife Refuges? Please. Let's try a new designation: Restricted Access Nuclear Wildlife Reserve. No trails, no tours, and no burning. Cut it down and contain it.

Paula Elofson-Gardine, Executive Director

Environmental Information Network (EIN), Inc.
Susan Hurst, Publications Director, EIN

Susan Hurst is the local citizen that took Rocky Flats Clean Water Act violations to the FBI in 1986 (as an owner of a construction company), that Rockwell plead guilty to, in Federal Court in1991 (USA v. Rockwell, Int'l). This was from Rockwell spray irrigating or land applying radiotoxic waste water to the buffer zone around the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility that sheeted off to tributaries, that went to metro area public drinking water supplies. Paula Elofson-Gardine, a biologist, was the chair of the Rocky Flats Technical Review Group for 3.5 years, and has been recognized by the Colorado Business Magazine as "knowing more about Rocky Flats than the DOE". She speaks regularly at CU Boulder, and other venues. Both were founding members of the Rocky Flats Cleanup Commission, an EPA TAG, in 1988. EIN is a nonprofit environmental education organization. For more information, see the EIN Website: