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: What about Chernobyl?

Ever heard of Godwin’s Law? It is a joke created by Mike Godwin that says that as a conversation on the internet, whether it be a comment section on Facebook or forum, grows longer that the probability of someone comparing an idea or argument to Hitler or Nazis becomes inevitable. I think something similar could be said about Chernobyl when discussing nuclear power. Chernobyl seems to always come up when discussing nuclear power.

In case you do not know, Chernobyl was a nuclear power facility located in the Ukranian state of the Soviet Union in which a unit, namely Unit 4, exploded and caught fire in 1986. 31 workers of the plant were killed. It is estimated that the disaster is the cause of over 7,000 cases of cancer throughout Ukraine, and the environmental effects has been catastrophic.

However, the takeaway from the story of Chernobyl is not the horrors of nuclear power, but the horrors of Soviet-style socialism and leadership. According to Grigori Medvedev, an engineer at Chernobyl, construction and safety checks for the plants were rushed for the sake of hitting deadlines and receiving bonuses provided by the Kremlin, safety violations were constantly overlooked for the sake of good reports to superiors, most of the workers at the time of the explosion were poorly trained, and managers decided to take the plant to very low power causing the plant to become unstable.

Chernobyl was a formula for disaster, but I think to blame the disaster on the dangers of nuclear power is a red herring. While there are many dangers to producing nuclear power, most of them can be avoided with proper procedures and precautions. Soviet leadership is 100% to blame for the Chernobyl disaster.

There are many things we use every day that provide potential dangers, but with proper precautions and procedure disaster is avoided. The same can be said with nuclear energy.

If you are interested in learning more about the Chernobyl disaster and what happened on that April day in 1989, I would highly recommend Grigori Medvedev’s book: The Truth About Chernobyl.