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Plutonium lasts forever...or close enough.
Certainly the stories surrounding Rocky Flats, the now-defunct nuclear-weapons plant sixteen miles northwest (and that means upwind) of Denver, are never-ending.
The most controversial current chapter involves the six tons of weapons-grade plutonium scheduled for transport to South Carolina, so that the last phase of the cleanup can be completed by 2006, as the Department of Energy has promised. Promised the people of Colorado, again and again.
The plutonium shipments were supposed to begin on May 15. But that was before South Carolina's governor, Jim Hodges, threatened to block the shipments with his body (while wearing a University of Colorado football helmet) -- if his lawsuit didn't do the job first.
A hearing on that legal action is set for June 13. Not coincidentally, the newest start date for the Rocky Flats shipments is now June 15.
Hodges says he's worried that the federal government has made no hard-and-fast guarantees that the plutonium shipped to South Carolina's Savannah River site will be processed in a timely fashion for eventual shipment out of that state. For starters, the $4 billion mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) recycling plant that's supposed to convert the waste plutonium has yet to be built. And without that plant in place, he argues, there's no reason to move the plutonium now -- particularly when it could prove a vulnerable target for terrorists. "Since the plutonium is only to be moved from one place of storage to another place of storage," Hodges wrote Department of Energy secretary Spencer Abraham as word of new terrorist threats spread, "there is no sufficient reason to endanger so many of our citizens by transporting it from one side of the country to the other."
Terrorism is only the latest bogeyman that Hodges has employed in his efforts to block the delivery of Rocky Flats waste to a state that had eagerly campaigned for the recycling facility; Hodges, a Democrat up for re-election in November, has also suggested that Senator Wayne Allard is hot to jettison the plutonium from this state because it will help the Colorado Republican's chances at the polls.
"It's the issue du jour for Hodges," says Allard spokesman Sean Conway.
But Representative Mark Udall, the Democrat whose second congressional district includes Rocky Flats, is no happier than Allard to see the stuff stay here. "All of these postponements were creating a concern for Mark, who wanted to protect Colorado's interests," says Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco. And so on May 15, Udall joined Allard in proposing legislation that would allow the State of Colorado to fine the Department of Energy up to $100 million a year if the DOE has failed to remove all of the plutonium from Rocky Flats by November 2003.
The DOE knows all about Rocky Flats-related fines.
Back in June 1989, the FBI raided the then-operational plant, looking for evidence of alleged environmental crimes. A federal grand jury spent two years sifting through that evidence and ultimately decided to indict eight individuals, including employees of both the DOE and Rockwell International, which was running the plant for the feds. Instead, the Department of Justice cut a deal with Rockwell, allowing the company to pay an $18.5 million fine -- less than Rockwell had earned in bonuses for its performance at Rocky Flats -- to settle the case. The grand jurors were so outraged by the deal that they wrote a report to the federal judge overseeing the case, Sherman Finesilver, and asked him to reject the settlement. Instead, ten years ago next month, the judge accepted the deal and sealed the grand jurors' report.
Although much of that report has since been released, a majority of the grand jurors are still waiting for U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch to rule on their request that they be allowed to break confidentiality and testify as to what went on behind closed doors more than a decade ago.
The grand jury's foreman, Wes McKinley, is not included on the list of plaintiffs. He decided to take a different route to justice: He ran for Congress as an independent in 1996. And while he placed a distant third in that race (although his mule, Marvin, did snag a major endorsement), he hasn't given up on politics altogether. McKinley is now running for a seat in the Colorado Legislature, in new House District 64, which stretches to the far southeastern corner of the state. This time around, he's running as a Democrat.
And so last week McKinley made the drive up from Walsh, his home hard by the Oklahoma border, to attend a Democratic fundraiser celebrating the end of the last legislative session and the start of the campaign season. The event had a particular resonance for McKinley: It was held at the law firm of Haddon, Morgan & Foreman, the attorneys who represented Rockwell when it cut its deal with the Justice Department.
While McKinley is still legally muzzled from talking about the grand jury's activities, he was looking forward to meeting Hal Haddon, the longtime Democratic power broker who was the lead attorney on the Rocky Flats case. But it was not to be.
"I wasn't at that Democratic fundraiser, and I didn't get to meet Mr. McKinley," Haddon says. And there's absolutely no truth to the rumor floating around Democratic circles that he will host a fundraiser for McKinley.
Even though the Rockwell case was officially closed ten years ago.
"The half-life of plutonium is what, a million years?" asks Haddon.
"It lasts for 24,000 years," responds McKinley, now back at his ranch. "There's no getting rid of plutonium. It's all a shell game."
Allard and Udall aren't counting on the threat of fines to do the trick. If the plutonium shipments to Savannah River haven't started by July 1 of this year, their legislation calls for the DOE to look for alternative sites.
Texas, for example, which also campaigned for the MOX plant and has more than twenty tons of plutonium at its Pantex facility scheduled for transport to South Carolina.
The Colorado politicians don't care where it goes -- as long as it's gone. "This is a Colorado-focused insurance policy that the DOE will keep its commitment to Colorado," Pacheco says. Four hours after Allard and Udall introduced their bills, the DOE agreed to push back the transport date to June 15 -- and South Carolina agreed to an expedited schedule on its lawsuit.
"If the court case goes against us on the 13th," Conway asks, "why not just reopen the issue? Why are we wasting all our time with South Carolina when we have other alternatives?"
Those political types fretting over the plutonium still stashed at Rocky Flats are missing an obvious solution: They could simply wish it away.
This week, a group of wishful thinkers will start circulating petitions asking that their proposal for the City and County of Denver to add a division devoted to the "Initiative for Safety Through Peace -- Creating Permanent Peace and Preventing Terrorism Worldwide to Help Ensure Public Safety" be put before the city's voters come November.
Thanks to an unusually low turnout at the last mayoral election, the group needs only 2,458 legitimate signatures to make it so. (That count represents 5 percent of the people who voted for the office of mayor in the 1999 election, the percentage required by city charter to put an initiative before Denver voters.) And a personable petition-bearer should be able to snag that many John Hancocks in only a few hours at the People's Fair.
The primary force behind the movement, Jeff Peckman, has been "thinking about world peace for thirty years," he says. But while thinking globally, he decided to act locally only after last summer, when a congressman's call for a Cabinet-level Secretary of Peace was passed over. After September 11, the need to "attempt to create a peace-creating device at the local level" became overwhelming.
Or, as the argument for the proposed ordinance states: "The People of the City and County of Denver hereby declare that safe cities and safe citizens are possible only in a safe and peaceful world. Terrorism is the most critical problem facing our world today. However, political negotiations, treaties and the use of destructive weaponry have hopelessly failed to create lasting peace or prevent terrorism or war. We urgently need a more fundamental approach that neutralizes the very basis of terrorism; preventing terrorist attacks before they begin.The 'Initiative for Safety Through Peace' would implement such an approach -- by requiring the use of proven, preventive, peace-creating technologies."
The only technology specifically listed, however, is "Super Radiance" (otherwise known as Transcendental Meditation®), which, according to the petition, has been "tested successfully in all parts of the world. More than 600 scientific studies...confirm a wide range of physiological, psychological and sociological benefits resulting from this fundamental experience of transcendental consciousness."
There's more, of course, lots more, and you can find it on the group's Web site, at www.bigg-alliance.org. But in the meantime, Peckman adds this: "We're presented with a completely new paradigm about how things work in the world...that you could actually achieve some prevention of terrorism through a local ordinance." And, of course, a city department devoted to transcendental meditation.
What does he think this is, Boulder?