Nuclear Energy: But What about Rocky Flats Plant?

Nuclear energy can be a touchy subject to Coloradans. The only real commercial power plant to exist in the state was Fort St. Vrain, and then there is an even bigger and more widely known elephant in the room: Rocky Flats. If you don’t know what Rocky Flats is, it is a controversial nuclear weapons development facility near Golden, Colorado that was opened in 1952. When it was built, the information of what the facility was doing and the materials it was using was mostly secret due to national security interests because of our contentions with the Soviet Union. Transparency was certainly not a virtue of the Cold War Era. Due to our lack of knowledge in the nuclear area at this time, there were some precautions taken to eliminate contamination, but not all the proper precautions were taken. As a result the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a few other governmental organizations had investigated the site and found huge breaches in safety for the surrounding public, the environment, and plant workers. Production halted in 1989, and cleanup began in 1992.

While the current contamination of surrounding areas, which include residential and agricultural areas, are not high enough to warrant cleanup by the EPA, the site is still highly monitored by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as it is listed as a Superfund site by the EPA. Public outcry against the site was huge back in the early 90s, and there is still a lot of public contention today.

However, it is wrong to conflate a commercial nuclear plant with a nuclear weapons plant. Rocky Flats Plant was used to create nuclear weapon triggers called “pits”, while commercial nuclear plants create electricity. The Rocky Flats Plant used weapons grade plutonium, while nuclear power plants use regular enriched uranium. While plutonium was used at the Rocky Flats site, uranium is normally used for weapons as it is more readily found than plutonium, but the uranium used for electricity in commercial plants is still much different than the uranium used in weapons. To put this in perspective, weapons grade uranium has drastically higher levels of 235U (the isotope used to create both electricity and weapons) than the concentration of the enriched uranium (also the 235U isotope) used in electricity generation. Weapons grade uranium has over 90% 235U, while the enriched uranium used in electricity is 0.7% to 25%.

With this perspective, it is clear to see why weapon development has a much higher chance of contamination and a more severe effect from contamination than electricity generation. While there are possible health and environmental concerns with nuclear power, to use weapons development as evidence against it is groundless.

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