HUDSON | Lightning poses a greater risk than the dust at Rocky Flats
Author: Miller Hudson - October 1, 2018 - Updated: September 30, 2018
How we think about risk has very little to do with the actual, statistical chance of injury. If it did, few of us would ever climb behind the wheel in our cars. It was Jerry Kruk of Calgary who schooled me on the psychodynamics of fear a quarter century ago. He initially worked as a professional risk communicator for Canadian oil and gas projects, but later migrated to nuclear conflicts, specifically issues of radioactive waste disposal. Kruk emphasized two guiding principles: (1) when we can’t see, hear, smell or taste a threat we sensibly fear it, and (2) when we have little or no opportunity to forestall a danger or prevent our exposure, particularly if that risk is created by unknown or uncaring others, we respond with anger. Consequently, we think nothing of driving to the grocery due to the comforting presumption we can exercise control over our personal risk. This assurance is, of course, largely an illusion. More Americans have been killed on our roads and highways than in all our wars.
All of which prompted me to drive out for a look at the recently opened trails at the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. On an unseasonably warm, autumn afternoon the protesters who attended the opening had departed at the trailhead off route 128 along the north side of the former nuclear weapons plant. Just two empty horse trailers and a lone car signaled the presence of any riders or hikers out somewhere over the horizon. I couldn’t find the south entrance among vast new housing developments shouldering up against the Refuge boundary. Presumably their purchasers harbor little anxiety regarding this proximity. Having previously visited Hanford, Los Alamos, the Idaho National Energy Labs, White Sands and Pantex it is apparent there was a predilection for isolated, high desert, sage and scrub country as we constructed the national weapons complex following the Second World War. When you are in this kind of country, I recommend you carry water, use sunscreen and wear a hat.
The Colorado Department of Health, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the federal Department of Energy have each certified the safety of the 11 miles of new hiking, biking and riding trails following a 30 year cleanup costing $20 billion. Five thousand acres are now open to the public, providing glimpses of nearly 300 wildlife species – a recreational asset unique to an urban setting. Another thousand acres surrounding the industrial facility that once produced plutonium triggers will remain off limits into the far distant future. Nonetheless, opponents of public access to the refuge insist microscopic, residual plutonium in the soil constitutes a mortal hazard to human life and health. Implicit in their objections is the absurd assumption that civil servants sworn to protect the safety of Colorado residents are consciously, intentionally and cavalierly conspiring to expose the public to serious illness and premature death. Predictably, they have been joined by a smattering of elected officials.
Climate change deniers ask us to embrace a similar charge that government bureaucrats have constructed an elaborate hoax regarding global warming – to what purpose and to whose advantage? It is suggested climate scientists have enlisted in a near unanimous cabal designed to extract government grants that will further support their bogus research while lining their pockets in the bargain. How likely is that? Wouldn’t it make far more sense for public policy to err on the side of caution? We cannot point to firmer proof that political opinion resides along a circle rather than stretching across a spectrum, joining the lunatic left with the reactionary right and meeting at an anarchic extreme that rejects reality. And, of course, there remain the paranoid mutterings of “deep state” conspiracists, a delusion the right appears to have snatched recently from the left.
In several hundred years, it is entirely possible historians will judge our 20th century dalliance with both nuclear power and nuclear weapons to have been mistakes. Then again, they may prove to have been risky, yet necessary forerunners enabling fusion energy or another sustainable, renewable technology we have not yet imagined. America is one of the few countries that has failed to address the responsible management of the detritus from this dalliance. We have identified no safe, permanent repository for high-level radioactive wastes, at least in part, because of a resistance to any disposal until we collectively commit to halt the production of additional waste. This seems rather like denying a hall pass to the restroom until a student agrees to cease passing waste.
Meanwhile I recommend you take your mountain bike or hiking boots and explore the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. It’s a treasure. Plutonium particles are as heavy as lead or gold and unlikely to be inhaled in any case. If a dust storm arises, wrap a bandana across your nose and mouth and you should be fine. Watch out for lightning though. That’s a genuine danger, not malicious or incompetent government employees.