Twilight of the Bombs

This book by Richard Rhodes has the long subtitle, “Recent challenges, New Dangers, and Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons.” I was eager to read the book because of previous Rhodes books, Making the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. I considered the author to be a diligent researcher, but was surprised to read his assessment of the down-sizing of the nuclear-weapon production “.  .  .partly in response to unilateral and negotiated arms reductions, partly because public concern had caught up with its environmentally abandoned ways. The FBI had actually raided the Department of Energy’s plutonium-production facility at Rocky Flats, in Colorado, in 1989, looking for evidence (which it found in abundance) that the DOE and Rockwell International, a contractor, had violated environmental-protection laws.” (212-213) Rhodes obviously read the headlines and didn’t bother with careful research that would have told him there were not actual violations of environmental laws. He could have learned the complicated truth about the outcome of the raid by reading my book, An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked. Regardless of that major flaw, the book contains interesting information. Rhodes also mentions that “.  .  .Rocky Flats, the only facility capable of producing plutonium pits, was permanently closed.” (page 218) That statement would have been more accurate if it had said Rocky Flats had produced most of the plutonium pits for several years. Continue reading

Jump on the Bandwagon

This expression is used to describe someone who begins supporting a political figure, sporting team, or idea only after it has become popular or successful. The internet tells me “bandwagon” had its origin in a book written by P.T. Barnum published in 1855. The expression is often used to describe those who are only attracted after it appears a campaign, team, or idea is a sure winner.

Colorado Study of Rocky Flats and Cancer

A study of ten types of cancer in neighborhoods near the now-closed Rocky Flats Plant by the State of Colorado has, according to a Denver post article, “. .  .uncovered no evidence to conclude that contamination from the plant has caused a cancer epidemic.” “Four cancers—lung, esophagus, colorectal and prostate—were more common in some, but not all neighborhoods near Rocky Flats than in the metro area as a whole.” The first three “.  .  .could is explained by higher rates of smoking in those areas.” The elevated prostate numbers in Boulder County were consistent with “.  .  .higher-than-average prostate cancer rates in wealthy areas, possibly the result of better disease screening.  .  .  .” The summary is that the study found “.  .  .the rate of the 10 types of cancer was statistically indistinguishable from the overall city’s rate.  .  .  .”

Reaction to the announcements brought on comments from people representing a group called “Downwinders.” “When you do a ZIP code study of people who live in the place now, you’re not finding the people who might have been affected. .  .  .” This is followed by a comment “.  .  .the studies suffer, though, because they are only able to look at where people were living when they were diagnosed with cancer. People who once lived in the area but moved before being diagnosed with cancer are not included in the study data, while people newly arrived in the area are.”

I interpret the spokespeople for the “Downwinders” are saying they believe people who lived near the plant and moved away are more likely to have developed cancer than the people who continued to live near the Plant? Why would the plant be considered to have created an increased risk of cancer if moving away increased the risk while moving near the plant reduced the risk?

My answer to these curious questions is that there is little if any evidence of risks from living near Rocky Flats. The people who worked there were understandably careful about managing the dangerous chemicals they were processing because they and their families lived nearby. That fact is not important to some. They just want to know when they can get their share of “government” money after the courts determined Rocky Flats should pay damages to some nearby residents despite the fact it did not create a risk to those people but was a “nuisance.”

Controversies about Rocky Flats will continue until the possibility of money from litigation dies up. That will happen when the attention of trial lawyers moves on to more lucrative ventures and when anti-Rocky Flats critics are not longer able to attract unwarranted attention of the media. It amazes me that a place that carefully performed a vital national defense Cold War mission continues to be successfully vilified by those who have apparently have forgotten what was happening in the world when the decision was made to build the plant. I continue working on a book that I hope will serve as a reminder.

Give Wide Berth

According to the Phrase Finder, this was originally a nautical term when berth was used to describe where a ship would be moored. Sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing to maintain sea room around a moored ship. Captain John Smith used a version of the term in 1626. “Watch bee vigilant to keepe your berth to the windward.” In 1829 Sir Walter Scott wrote “Giving the apparent phantom what seamen call a wide berth,” which led to the current meaning of maintaining a goodly distance.

Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.

Run to Ground

This expression is used to describe the successful conclusion of a difficult search for something or someone or to get to the bottom of a matter. Wordwizard explains the idiom is “. .  .from hunting, especially fox hunting.” The fox has been chased and cornered in the den.

21st Century’s Biggest Challenge Found in a Casserole

Ah, the holiday season! We gather with friends and family, and wonder if the pot-luck meals are going to kill us – if not by design, then by carelessness or ignorance. Does Aunt Alpha dismiss your worries over chemicals? Does Uncle Beta laugh as he shovels in another helping of some comfort-casserole first baked during the Great Depression?

I ran across an interesting article at slate.com about BPA, a chemical commonly added to plastics in contact with food to prevent corrosion or suppress bacteria. In high enough doses it can “cause adverse health effects by interfering with how our normal hormone systems work.” The author, Michael Holsapple, is a professor at Michigan State who studies food safety. He’s written an interesting article and I hope you’ll read it for yourself.

Holsapple reminds us of an important detail:

When considering the safety of any substance, it is important to understand what is known as a ‘dose-response relationship.’

As the dose of a potentially harmful chemical we are exposed to increases, so, too, does the severity of the harmful response. This means the relative safety of almost every substance—even water or oxygen—is a function of the dose to which we are exposed. Importantly, this also means that the mere presence of a chemical does not mean it will be harmful.

Consumer fears about BPA have led some food companies to replace it with other chemicals that are not well understood, just so they can boast “BPA-free” on their products. Their replacements could turn out to be more dangerous than BPA since

A 70 kg person, or about 154 pounds, would have to consume over 14 cans of cream of mushroom soup, or over 64 cans of green beans per day to be vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with exposure to BPA.

We live in a world flooded with misinformation, but it’s impossible for any individual to research everything that pops up on their favorite news site or – even more questionable – blog. There was a time when we looked to experts in academia or government to sort through it all for us, but public faith in such sources is low. RF_Alum has grappled with this issue at Rocky Flats, and his first-hand, personal knowledge doesn’t seem to comfort people once their fears are aroused – just check out the book reviews he mentioned here.

“You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.” A statement we can all endorse. But finding those facts and getting us all to share them may be the biggest challenge of the 21st Century.

BTW – it’s pretty well established that daily overeating and a couch-potato lifestyle will hurt you, so keep that green bean and mushroom soup casserole as only an annual treat.