THIS IS ONLY A TEST
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.
With the planet's fate secured, sixth-grader Chawndee Gonzales takes the floor to explain the pros and cons of man-made radiation. On the plus side, says Chawndee, radiation can be used beneficially for medical purposes. The bad side is that if you get too much radiation, during a world war or something, nobody will be able to do much for you. Because of nuclear-bomb testing in this country and elsewhere, "everyone has been and will be exposed to man-made radiation," Chawndee says.
Next, Ryan Green moves to center stage to discuss naturally occurring radiation. "Over half of human exposure [to radiation] comes from cosmic rays," Ryan says. Then there's the radon seeping into people's basements. It's eight times heavier than air, Ryan observes, and not good to breathe.
Two girls step up to sing a shortened rendition of the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari," changing the opening line to "Let's go conserving now." Cheerleaders turn cartwheels and build a human pyramid for the good of the planet, ending their tribute with shouts of "Go, Peck!" and "Peck rules!" A song about trees being cut down by "people who are insane" comes to a halt when the words elude the two singers. The girls make a quick but orderly exit, blushing as they march off stage shoulder to shoulder.
The rest of the program goes well, as the sixth graders build to a crescendo of civic can-doism that seems time-capsuled from the duck-and-cover days of the Eisenhower era. In Our Friend the Atom, an animated Disney film of the time, a friendly expert told young viewers, "We hold the Atomic Genie under safe control--a smiling, magic servant to all mankind." Forty years later, Weiland's students seem to be reading from the same script. "There is a little radiation coming from Rocky Flats," says Ryan, but not enough to do anybody harm. With computers, TVs, microwaves and glow-in-the-dark watches, Chawndee points out, "there's more radiation coming from your home."
There are Comrad monitors in Arvada, Westminster, Thornton and Broomfield. Weiland's station is the Standley Lake Library monitor, one of two located in Arvada. He and the other Comrad science teachers get $250 a month from the federal government to check their equipment three times a week. Plaques DOE has installed at the Standley Lake monitor to introduce the program to the public don't explain that the monitors have anything to do with Rocky Flats. The plaques also fail to make clear that one of the primary purposes of the monitors is to test for plutonium, though the nation's second-largest stockpile rests a few miles away.
Health experts say a single particle of plutonium inhaled into a human lung can cause cancer. Over its 42-year history, Rocky Flats has released plutonium into the air accidentally as well as routinely. There have been more than 150 fires involving plutonium at the plant; two large fires in production facilities in 1957 and 1969 led to the uncontrolled release of the toxic substance over the metro area. At the time, the government assured the public that neither fire posed a danger to the community, though plant officials did not know themselves how much plutonium had been released. In 1993 DOE acknowledged that roughly six kilograms, or about thirteen pounds of plutonium, was unaccounted for after the 1957 fire alone.
An area ten miles east and southeast of Rocky Flats received the heaviest doses, according to a state health-department study released in October 1993. Peck Elementary, six miles southeast of the plant's boundary, lies within that area.
With a half-life of 22,400 years, plutonium emitted from the plant decades ago will remain hazardous for centuries. Like the dust particles they tend to cling to, plutonium particulates on the ground can become airborne when disturbed, whether by human activity or the winds that commonly roar down from the Front Range to rake the grounds of Rocky Flats.
Last month a DOE report revealed that much of the 14.2 tons of plutonium stockpiled at the plant is improperly stored, some of it in cracking plastic bottles, leaking tanks and piping, and metal drums in which combustible gases are accumulating. The possibility of fire is significant, given the capacity of plutonium to spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen. According to the DOE report, the risk of explosions or nuclear chain reactions has also been increased by the plant's continuing use of 27,000 temporary packages in which various forms of plutonium sit five years after production of nuclear bomb triggers was interrupted by the FBI raid.
A federal grand jury that spent two and a half years investigating the plant following the raid concluded the plant was "an ongoing criminal enterprise" that repeatedly violated environmental laws and "breached the public's trust by engaging in a campaign of distraction, deception and dishonesty." The grand jury wanted to indict several individuals and found that behavior by both EG&G and its predecessor, Rockwell International, was criminal in nature. However, presiding judge Sherman Finesilver suppressed the grand jury report, ruling that the document's findings weren't supported by the evidence presented by federal prosecutors. A congressional subcommittee that looked into the case faulted the judge's actions, saying that Finesilver gave the jury insufficient legal guidance and should have done more to assist the panel in preparing its report.
There are a lot of misconceptions about radiation and Rocky Flats, notes Forrest Shoemaker, a retired biology teacher from Standley Lake High School who serves as the Denver-area coordinator for the Comrad program. "One is that radiation is coming from the plant and affecting people and animals," he says. "Another is that radiation [from the plant] is floating around the community and you kick it up from the ground."
Working with Comrad's monitors has convinced Shoemaker that both beliefs are unfounded. "There's nothing coming off the plant that's a risk to the community," he says, noting that station filters have picked up only minute traces of plutonium.
Putting science teachers in charge of the stations has given the Comrad program credibility, Shoemaker explains. "Teachers have integrity," he says. "The community can trust them. They're not about to be spokespersons for DOE." Comrad teachers often "get out in the community and do presentations on the program and on what radiation is," Shoemaker continues, adding that DOE has done a very thorough job of training its station managers.
Three and a half years ago, long before the monitors were up and running, the Department of Energy began giving about a dozen local science teachers lessons in radiation and technical instruments. The sessions weren't limited to the classroom. Tours of Rocky Flats showed the teachers what was going on at the plant, where workers have spent the last five years preparing for a cleanup of the buildings and grounds that's expected to last 25 years and cost billions of dollars.
The teachers proved to be enthusiastic students, even suggesting field trips to other DOE facilities to broaden their knowledge of radiation, says Kim Natale, a physics teacher at Standley Lake High School who manages a monitoring station at Countryside Recreation Center in Westminster.
"We wanted to be able to answer questions like, `Why do we have plutonium?'" Natale explains. The teachers decided a trip to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico would be the best way to learn about criticalities, nuclear chain reactions caused when sufficient amounts of plutonium or other fissionable materials are brought together to form a critical mass. The recent DOE report concluded that the risk of a criticality accident at Rocky Flats is substantial, given the huge amount of plutonium stored unsafely at the plant. "We wanted to see buildings where nuclear accidents had occurred," says Natale. "We wanted to see some plutonium."
Last summer Rocky Flats contractor EG&G set up a trip for the teachers, says Natale. The Energy Department covered the travel expenses, adds program coordinator Shoemaker, and even paid the teachers for their time. Shoemaker says he doesn't know the total cost of the trip. According to Natale, the government also provided DOE and EG&G escorts to accompany the inquisitive instructors to Los Alamos, where much of the experimental development of the American nuclear arsenal has taken place. There the group was shown a room in which a researcher received a fatal dose of radiation when he brought together two chunks of plutonium. There was no visible evidence of the accident, Natale reports. "The building was fine."
The teachers also got a lesson in nuclear fission. While they watched from another room via a video hookup, sheets of uranium foil were piled up and squeezed together with a press until a nuclear chain reaction began. There were no bright lights or explosions, Natale recalls, though the educators were impressed by the frenetic reaction of radiation counters and alarms during the criticality demonstration. The science teachers left Los Alamos somewhat deflated, however, when safety concerns derailed a plan to show the visitors a pile of plutonium. "They showed us some pictures of it" instead, says Natale.
The teachers had more to see during another DOE-funded field trip two summers ago to the government's Armageddon workshop, the nuclear-bomb testing site in Nevada. There the group learned how scientists once field-tested nuclear weapons, exploding them both above and below ground beginning in 1951 and continuing, with a few interruptions for test-ban treaties, until 1992, when the latest ban took effect.
At the desolate 1,300-square-mile bombing range, the nuclear tourists got a close-up look at the power of the atom, peering into house-sized craters where bombs had been detonated. Site personnel with Geiger counters halted them at the edge of the blast holes. "They knew the readings were too high down in the craters, so we weren't allowed to go in," says Natale.
Citizens in three states get reassurance from the Nevada test site's nineteen Comrad monitors, which have been placed in communities as far afield as Salt Lake City, some 500 miles to the northeast. Clouds of "hot" particles from blasts at the Nevada proving ground have been known to circle the globe, propelled by winds in the upper atmosphere, before falling to the earth's surface, where one of Comrad's monitors would presumably be waiting to record the event.
The odds that the five Comrad monitors near Rocky Flats will pick up a wayward plutonium plume from the Colorado plant aren't promising, say local critics. "A release of plutonium would stream out in the wind like the narrow beam of a headlight," says Greg Marsh, a chemist who runs an environmental-analysis business in Arvada and serves as president of an Environmental Protection Agency-funded watchdog group called the Rocky Flats Cleanup Commission. "What are the statistical chances of one of those five monitors being in the right place at the right time?" asks Marsh, who stresses that he's speaking for himself and not for the EPA group.
Positioned from three to seventeen miles to the east and southeast of Rocky Flats, the Comrad monitors will do residents little good in the event of an accident at the plant, says Marsh. "By the time a cloud of plutonium reaches those monitors, it will have already settled on hundreds of thousands of dogs and kids and barbecue grills," he predicts.
But Richard Borinsky, a Broomfield High School biology teacher who works as a station manager in the local Comrad program, says the program was never intended as an emergency detection system. "Comrad's not there to warn the public," says Borinsky. "It's there as an independent check on the data from the state health department's monitors and DOE's monitors."
To date, the data accumulated by Comrad monitors has been consistent with DOE and state samplers located in and around the site, says Robert Terry, head of the state health department's radiation-control division. The results, which show minuscule quantities of plutonium in the air, mean there's "virtually no hazard" from plant emissions, according to Terry.
If plutonium does happen to find a Comrad monitor, however, other problems may come into play. The air samplers aren't equipped to handle plutonium particles of the size that might be emitted from the plant as the result of a cleanup operation, according to Gale Biggs, a Boulder meteorologist and air-quality consultant who has studied DOE's monitoring system and was formerly active in the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board, a watchdog group funded by a DOE grant.
"The ambient monitors are neither detecting nor measuring the emissions from the facility," Biggs wrote in a letter to DOE manager Mark Silverman and other officials last spring. A memo from a state health department official addressing Biggs's concerns acknowledged that the air samplers don't adequately capture particles larger than 35 microns--a size range that would include plutonium attached to particles of dust.
In 1979 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development office in Denver was concerned enough over plant emissions to issue a notice advising homebuyers within ten miles of Rocky Flats that there were "varying levels of plutonium contamination of the soil" in the area. The Reagan administration stopped HUD from distributing the notice in 1981.
Critics say another problem with Comrad is the delay in getting air-sampling results back from the lab. While filters from the samplers are collected and sent to an EPA lab in Las Vegas every month, results typically take two to three months to come back, say station managers. Those delays, plus the difficulty the average citizen would have obtaining the lab results, undercut Comrad's purpose, says Ken Korkia of the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board. "It's not effective in informing the public of any releases from the plant," Korkia maintains. "You won't open up your paper and see readings from the monitors there."
Back at Peck Elementary, Dudley Weiland monitors a discussion of radiation by his Super C's. "Rocky Flats used to make bombs," Troy Stoehr says. "That made radiation come out." Now the plant is cleaning up radioactive waste, not creating it, continues the eleven-year-old. In fact, each Comrad monitor contains a vacuum cleaner "that sucks all the radiation out of the air so people don't die," he says.
That's not quite the purpose of the air samplers, but it's a natural misunderstanding, and Weiland is low-key in correcting the student. The monitors are there to check for radiation, he explains. And checking his Comrad monitor four miles southeast of Rocky Flats over the past two years has convinced him there's nothing to fear from the plant. "We haven't detected any radiation from Rocky Flats," Weiland says. "I've been surprised. But Rocky Flats is really not a danger to the community at all."
Troy and Erin and Ryan and Chawndee agree that Rocky Flats doesn't worry them, either. They have the findings of the station managers, whom Troy refers to as "the scientists," to rely on.
The teachers, who in turn have come to rely on Comrad, are worried about a DOE funding cut last fall that slashed the program's budget from $600,000 to $200,000, eliminating teacher training and much of the equipment maintenance budget, as well as a program that would have linked monitoring station readouts directly to schoolchildren's computers. "The program was excellent," says Broomfield biology teacher Richard Borinsky. "Now it's just a skeleton of what it was."
Rocky Flats spokeswoman Kee Liakos says the most important component of the program, independent monitoring, has been preserved. And such grumblings haven't shaken Dudley Weiland's faith in Comrad. "I love it," he says. "If this kind of thing was done years ago, people would probably be comfortable with Rocky Flats by now.
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