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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Nuclear Energy: Uranium Mining in Colorado

Colorado has a long and controversial history with uranium mining. While uranium did not get into extremely high demand until the early 1950s due to the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons, Colorado began similar mining with radium in the 1910s and vanadium in the 1930s, which were popular for more commercial uses like paints and clays. Both radium and vanadium are indicator minerals for uranium, hence why their mining and extraction are so interrelated.

The first uraninite, also known as pitchblende, found in the United States was found near Central City, Colorado. While most the uranium used for nuclear weapons, specifically the Manhattan Project, came from Congo and Canada, Colorado, through the Uravan mining district, produced about 850 tons of uranium ore for weapons testing. Prospecting and mining continued to expand after World War II as the largest uranium deposit to be found in Colorado was discovered in the late 1940s. Due to recession, the scaling down of the Cold War, and uranium being released from weapon stockpiles, uranium mining decreased dramatically in the 1980s due to a large decrease in price. During the boom of uranium mining in Colorado (1948-1978), it is estimated that Uravan belt had over 1,200 mines and mined 63 million pounds of uranium.

Currently, Colorado ranks third for the most known uranium reserves in the United States, just behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Since 2009, there has been no major uranium mining in the state of Colorado, and there are currently no active mines. However, there are 31 permitted projects in Colorado.

While uranium mining has the potential to be a very lucrative industry in the future, especially if nuclear energy becomes more popular, it does come with externalities to the environment and public health. When it comes to describing nuclear waste, it is generally described in two tiers: low-level waste and high level waste, which refer to their level of radioactivity. Uranium mining, which produce mill tailings, is the source of low-level waste, while high-level waste refers mostly to used reactor fuel after the uranium has been used to generate electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration, “by volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity”, meaning most of the waste comes from the extraction of uranium.

Mill tailings from uranium mining, which has the presence of its indicator mineral radium, will break down into radon, which is a radioactive gas that can collect in the atmosphere if special precautions are not taken. Furthermore environmental contamination can occur from the tools used if special precautions also are not taken.

While it is important to keep in mind the externalities of uranium mining when discussing nuclear energy, we must remember that these kinds of trade-offs exist almost anywhere in energy production. Wind and solar energy, as well as hybrid and electric cars, fluorescent lightbulbs, and Ipods, have very similar externalities to nuclear power as they use rare earth elements like lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium, and several others. When comparing the externalities of uranium mining to the externalities of other rare earth element mining, the risks are almost identical.