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Sixth-grade science students at Peck Elementary School in Arvada have been putting on up-with-nature environmental shows for more than a decade. Only recently, however, have the half-hour performances, staged for Rotarians and other community groups, begun featuring a new prop: a Geiger counter supplied to science teacher Dudley Weiland by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of an effort to "educate" grade-school students and others who live in the shadow of the Rocky Flats nuclear-bomb factory.
The radiation instrument makes its appearance during a fast-moving show featuring bounding cheerleaders, a science-fiction video and students known as the "Super C's," who portray ecological superheroes from another planet. During the Geiger-counter segment, students take radiation readings from the heads of audience members. Usually the instrument shows a minimal count, say students gathered in a cafeteria after a recent performance, though this fall one man's bald head set off a furious beeping. That was funny, agree the Super C's--named for their commitment to Colorado, conservation and cleanup. Listening from the doorway, Weiland adds that the Geiger session demonstrates that people live their lives with radiation all around them.
Weiland's sixth graders want the Kiwanis clubs and schoolchildren for whom they perform to leave with a new appreciation for the environment in which they live--an environment that includes Rocky Flats, found in a recent government report to be the most dangerous of the country's thirteen nuclear plants and labs.
Weiland is one of eleven local science teachers taking part in the Community Radiation Monitoring Program, funded by DOE "to help students and citizens learn about weather, natural radiation and man-made radiation," according to the Rocky Flats media office. The Peck teacher serves as a station manager for one of five "Comrad" radiation monitors set up in the community. Trained in the ways of radiation by the Energy Department, which has footed the bill for the teachers' summer field trips to out-of-state nuclear facilities, Weiland has taught kids at Peck that they have more to fear from their microwave ovens than they do from Rocky Flats. Over the years, people have gotten a lot of wrong ideas about the place, Weiland says, among them the notion that it's emitting harmful doses of radiation.
"It's been really kind of neat," the science teacher says of Comrad. "I've enjoyed helping the community get more comfortable with the concept of radiation. When people get the information on Rocky Flats, they see we don't have to fear it."
The Energy Department got the idea for Comrad from the nuclear-power industry's worst accident, the Three Mile Island disaster near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979. There authorities and utility officials searching for a way to win over a mistrustful public distributed radiation monitors to selected residents while radioactivity was being vented from the damaged reactor. Hoping to reproduce that public-relations success, DOE adopted the concept two years later at the government's nuclear-bomb test site in Nevada, a place infamous for dusting western states with radioactive fallout during the Cold War years. Comrad systems have since sprouted at DOE's trouble-prone nuclear-weapons facilities in Hanford, Washington, and at Rocky Flats.
Since the spring of 1993, Comrad stations in communities directly east and southeast of Rocky Flats have been recording weather data and gamma radiation and filtering the air for potentially fatal plutonium particles that may have been emitted from the plant. To judge from Weiland and his science show, the program is a success.
The Peck science teacher smiles at news reports citing Rocky Flats as the nation's most dangerous DOE site. He and the other station managers have toured the "Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site," as the government now calls the contaminated facility. They've sat through hours of DOE classes on radiation and briefings on plant activities. They've heard all that's being done to improve plant safety by DOE and lame-duck site operator EG&G, which tried to bail out of the plutonium-laden plant this fall but ended up stuck there until its contract with DOE expires at the end of 1995.
It doesn't bother Weiland that there are 14.2 tons of plutonium at Rocky Flats, where production of nuclear bomb parts was halted five years ago following a raid by FBI agents looking for evidence of environmental crimes. Says the teacher, with an insider's assurance, "I understand it's very well taken care of."
Peck kids have been doing the Super C's show since the early 1980s, when Weiland and a colleague came up with the idea of getting kids interested in saving the planet by playing to their affection for death and destruction.
A recent version of the show stars Erin Stortroen, twelve, and Troy Stoehr, eleven, as the Super C's, conservation-minded space aliens from the planet Stargenia, which exploded after years of environmental abuse by its inhabitants. Troy and Erin seem a little self-conscious, though probably no more so than most preteens would be if they were wearing green tights, a cape and a T-shirt emblazoned with the letter C.
As a videotape that plays midway through the performance explains, the extraterrestrial twins escaped their planet's destruction unharmed and have journeyed to earth to save it from a similar fate. Standing in their way is fellow space alien Wex Waste, ready ally of any earthling bent on trashing the planet ("Come on, guys! Let's go pollute another place!"). In the video, the Super C's begin each scene by jumping into place as if landing from flight, arms bowed to form large letter C's. They waste no time trapping Wex Waste in a dumpster. After a bit of banging around and yelling, Waste surrenders, persuaded to join the recycling C's in their quest. "Now the Earth will be saved!" the Super C's announce.