Article about Safety of Rocky Flats

Nucl_Deter_Book_CvrI’m moving closer to publishing a book that will have “Nuclear Deterrence” in the title and will contain a history of the Rocky Flats Plant. (We’ll let you know when there is a new website for the project.) The new book presents information that should make everyone celebrate that Rocky Flats was key to preventing World War III. However, a recent article in the Denver Post emphasizes that critics of the plant who continue to find ways to create fear about the legacy of Rocky Flats. They argue about the risks of the site even after it was closed for about a decade ago. The article by Charlie Brennan of the Daily Camera is titled “Safe for wildlife, but what about humans?” The opening refers to a long-time activist that says the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge should not be open to human access for at least 24,110 years, which is the half life of plutonium 239. People who have made a living protesting Rocky Flats and continue to warn about the dangers left behind on the site say that it “.  .  .should be left to animals and the wind.” One argument presented is that “We live in an area that has abundant places to enjoy wildlife and nature without going to a place like Rocky Flats.” I’ll counter that with the observation that the buffer zone for the plant is one of the few places where the unique high mountain prairie has been preserved. People who are interested should be able to see the beauty of that area safely by using the several miles of the planned trails when the refuge opens.

The good news is that enough local municipalities have contributed to the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) that will provide underpasses and trail segments. That will provide a link to the Rocky Mountain Greenway trail that will run from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to Rocky Flats and on to Rocky Mountain National Park. Enough municipalities agreed to support the project to make it a reality. Several State and Federal Agency officials have “. .  .signed off on the safety of the proposed refuge.  .  .  .” while critics continue to disagree.

Consider that many tens of thousands of people worked at the plant and many of them worked there for several decades. They worked in the industrial area that is now restricted from access. The people who worked at Rocky Flats are mostly living long lives. Walking on a trail through the area that was the buffer zone will be just as safe walking around a back yard in Boulder or a trail near Vail. Taking soil samples from the refuge should be accompanied by comparison samples from that back yard and the trail near Vail. None of us can walk anywhere, inside or out, without being exposed to the background levels of plutonium that were efficiently deposited world-wide by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

I’ll close with the personal comment, which I’ve made previously. I’ll be willing to take my children and grandchildren on a hiking tour of the refuge without concern for their safety. My only concern is whether I’ll be able to keep up with them. I hope my new book will adequately present the fact that the very tiny to non-existent environmental risks at the site are overwhelmed by the fact that a policy of nuclear deterrence supported by the plant prevented World War III!

The Oak Ridge Story

Oak Ridge Story book coverThis book was referenced in an article provided by a friend, and it contains some extraordinarily interesting aspects for a book published in 1950. For example, the Introduction describes how the Japanese, when they were in control of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, conducted a roundup of “…persons suspected of unfriendly attitudes.” An elderly American who had lived in the Philippines for many years was questioned about his nationality. “The man replied he was from Tennessee. A perplexed look crossed the (Japanese) officer’s face. Then he decreed. ‘You may depart. You are of a non-belligerent nation. Japan has no war with Tennessee’.” The irony is that activities in Tennessee would lead to the first atomic bomb used in warfare that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945.

The book describes how John Hendrix was a devoutly religious person who lived in Eastern Tennessee at the turn of the Twentieth Century and described visions that caused people to laugh. He described a railroad that had yet to be built but was eventually built. However, that isn’t the most remarkable vision described by the “Prophet.” He described visions he had during a forty day self-imposed isolation in the woods. He emerged from his isolation to tell neighbors the valley, “…some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake…I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”

Many of the neighbors of Hendrix undoubtedly considered him to be hopelessly delusional, or perhaps they just passed him off as an interesting eccentric. There is no doubt his visions, perhaps by sheer luck or by actual prophesy, accurately predicted the building of massive Manhattan Project installations in Eastern Tennessee. I find the prediction that, “…the earth will shake” to be the most compelling. The detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 indeed caused the earth to shake along with other effects that killed or injured tens of thousands of people in that Japanese city. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did indeed, as prophesized by Mr. Hendrix, “…help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…” Continue reading

Nuclear Winter: The Evidence and the Risks

nuclear-winterThis book by Owen Greene, Ian Percival, and Irene Ridge reminded me of Carl Sagan’s public campaign to frighten people about nuclear weapons while I wondered why what happened after a nuclear holocaust would be more frightening than the holocaust itself. I thought I should educate myself about what frightened people more than the direct effects of a nuclear detonation. The book mentions that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences published a study in 1982 that the smoke from nuclear explosions could “…blot out nearly all the sunlight from half of Earth for weeks on end. The key factor that scientists had neglected for over thirty years was smoke!” The warning prompted five American scientists; Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack, and Sagan (revered in Nuclear Winter circles as TTAPS) to calculate that “…summer could be turned into winter…” Nuclear explosions would ignite fires of everything combustible in and around cities. The smoke would combine with the ejected dust to create a long list of effects. Harvests would be reduced for two years or more, countless plants and animals would become extinct, there would be deaths from collapse of medical services, famine, and epidemics. “Human suffering would be world-wide and on a scale almost beyond comprehension.

The book presents a list of nuclear weapons stockpiles as of 1985 (predating India and China). The overall total was estimated at 49,600 with a total yield of approximately 15,000 megatons. For those who often question why there were so many weapons, there is a listing of “Targeting Categories” from the U.S. Department of Defense dated March, 1980. The listing which was said to be “only illustrative,” includes: Soviet Nuclear Forces (more than 2,000 targets), Military and Political Leadership (about 3,000), Conventional Military Forces (about 15,000),Economic and Industrial Targets (about 15,000)

Soviet priorities were said to “…be similar.” Continue reading

The Samson Option

samson-optionThis is a fascinating book by Seymour M. Hersh. As suggested by the subtitle, “Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy,” the book is split between describing how Israel developed nuclear weapons and a succession of American Presidents mostly turning a blind eye toward what Israel was doing. Some of the information is astonishing, and I often wondered whether the information was fact or fiction. There seems to have been a significant amount of research in the form of interviews with Israelis and Americans who could have known the secrets that are discussed. My inclination is to present the book as factual, and that is mostly because that would make the book more interesting!

The story begins with a description of how the U.S. shared high resolution images from a spy satellite called the “KH-11.” It seems a bit odd that the Israelis supposedly promised not to use the images for military purposes but used them to develop targets in the Soviet Union. They also used them to target and destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak twelve miles north of Baghdad in early June 1981. The bombing raid was accomplished with F-16s that had been purchased from the U.S. “for defensive purposes only.” The bombing brought about worldwide protest and was the first Middle East crises for the Reagan administration. President Reagan asked his national security advisor, Richard Allen why the Israelis had bombed the facility and was told “Well. Boys will be boys.” The real answer was that Menachem Begin had said that it was necessary to prevent Iraq from developing a nuclear weapon. He said Iraq having nuclear weapons would result in “another Holocaust.” He then added, “Never again! Never again!” Nine hundred Jewish defenders had committed suicide at Masada in 73 A.D. while Samson had killed himself and his captors by pushing apart the temple pillars where he was chained. “For Israel’s nuclear advocates, the Samson Option became another way of saying ‘Never again!’” Continue reading

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I have often considered the arguments for and against President Harry Truman’s decision to authorize the use of atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities. There is no doubt the decision resulted in a horrible outcome for countless innocent people (not an uncommon outcome in World War II). Tens of thousands of Japanese of all ages were killed in the two atomic-blasts. There are arguments that the Japanese were just about ready to surrender anyway, but there is no doubt they surrendered soon after the two bombs were detonated.

My opinions have been mostly shaped by considering the American and other Allied soldiers in troop ships staging for the invasion of Japan. Those soldiers did not focus on the horror of people being incinerated in Japanese cities or dying of radiation sickness. They instead celebrated that they would no longer have to participate in an invasion that would result in the death or dismemberment of invading soldiers, perhaps including them personally, and millions of Japanese.

My interest in the subject was rekindled by reading and reviewing the book “Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. The book was selected by the Northern Colorado Common Read (NCCR) for this year. The book is the story of Louis Zamperini. He finished seventh in the 5000 meters at the Berlin Olympics and soon was a bombardier in planes on raids over Japanese targets in the Pacific. He was one of three men who survived a plane crash into the ocean, and he and another man survived for 47 days on a rubber raft before being captured by the Japanese. He suffered brutal conditions and treatment for years.

The book documents numerous instances where the Japanese applied a “kill-all” policy that “…held that camp commanders could not, under any circumstances, allow Allied forces to recapture POWs. If Allied advances made this a possibility, POWs were to be executed.” “An order was issued to all POW camp commanders that “…decisive measures must be taken without returning a single POW.” A clarification said that all POWs at risk of being taken by Allied forces should be “…destroyed individually or in groups…with mass bombings, poisonous smoke, drowning, decapitation (or by whatever method needed to) not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not leave any traces.” The book gives several examples of how the “kill-all” policy was used by the Japanese when Allied forces threatened an area where there were Allied prisoners. (See the “kill-all” order listing of instances where the policy was used by the Japanese on page 464 in the Index of the book.)

Much has been written that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many thousands of Allied soldiers and countless millions of Japanese civilians. An article titled “How the Atomic Bomb Saved 4,000,000 Lives describes declassified documents that were plans for the invasion code named “Operation Downfall.” The invasion was to be in two parts. Operation Olympic would send fourteen divisions to  invade Kyushu and Operation Coronet would send twenty-two divisions would invade the main island after massive bombardment. It is interesting that some of the comments about the article (some of course dispute the need to drop the bombs) say that it grossly underestimates the number of casualties.

The book “Unbroken” focuses on the many thousands of Allied prisoners who were to be murdered a few days after the bombs were dropped. The bombs (and the devastation preceding them from fire bombings with conventional weapons) assured the Japanese surrender and forestalled the mass murders of prisoners.

Prisoners freed from the POW camps on trains that passed what had been the city of Hiroshima were astonished at the level of destruction. “Virtually every POW believed the destruction of this city had saved them from execution.” One prisoner who had been on the Bataan Death March observed, in part, “…there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn’t have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive anyone else’s human needs and suffering. I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.”

I ask all who vilify President Truman’s decision what they would have wanted him to do if they had been a prisoner of the Japanese and facing the “kill-all” policy when the bombs were dropped. Is that an unfair question? I don’t think so.

As always, I’m willing to listen to voices of reason to tell me what I’ve missed. However, you will have much to overcome if you disagree with me. The horror created by the atomic bombs detonating over Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that many thousands of soldiers did not have to die or suffer terrible wounds in the invasion of Japan. Allied soldiers also did not have to kill Japanese civilians, including women and children, who were being prepared for the invasion armed with sharpened sticks. Tough choice, but I go with what Truman decided.

Pakistan is More Dangerous than Egypt

The focus of the world is on the demonstrations and clashes in Egypt, and there are many reasons why that is worrisome. There is always cause for concern when economic pressures make large numbers of people willing to march against a repressive government. However, we should be more concerned about Pakistan, which has about 100 nuclear weapons and is not the picture of political stability.

Pakistan has been a nominal ally of the United States and has been at war with India three times. BBC News reported the recent assassination of Governor Salam Taseer by one of his bodyguards. The guard said he killed Taseer because the Governor had voiced opposition to the blasphemy law when he came to the defense of a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Taseer had also recently spoken out about “illiterate clerics” who had issued the fatwa religious decrees resulting in assassination of the two Bhuttos. There were demonstrations calling the guard a hero for carrying out the assassination of a man who was defending a blasphemer, and other demonstrations mourning the loss of the Governor who had advocated moderate reforms.

The NY Times reported there are tens of thousands of Pakistanis working in their nuclear weapons programs, and part of their efforts involve building reactors to make a new generation of plutonium weapons. (You can see Pakistan join the nuclear club toward the end of the 15 minute “Video of Nuclear Detonations 1845-1998” available in the December 2010 archive on this site. India exploded its first bomb in 1974 and Pakistan’s was in 1998.) Pakistan countered criticism of their expanding nuclear programs with reports emphasizing their belief they are following “…a responsible policy of maintaining credible minimum deterrence…”

There are reports that the United States has provided hundreds of millions to Pakistan to secure their nuclear materials and weapons. However, it is difficult to imagine the possible futility of those expenditures and the consequences if Pakistan would fall to a government friendly to Iran.

Health Risks of Plutonium Part II

I’ve received comments about what I’ve written on risks from low levels of plutonium in the environment and that I would be comfortable visiting the wildlife refuge at the former Rocky Flats site with my family. One worrisome assertion was that plutonium “was designed to kill.” Plutonium was generated in large quantities in a natural underground “reactor” in Africa that was dubbed the “Oklo Phenomenon a bit under two billion years ago. I agree that plutonium and other elements (i.e., arsenic) are toxic at some exposure level, but I can’t think that Mother Nature designed them to kill.

Another commenter referred to “Mortality Among Plutonium and Other Radiation Workers at a Plutonium Weapons Facility” by Gregg S. Wilkinson, et al. (The copyrighted article is online in the February 1987 edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology.) The responder points out Rocky Flats workers with higher levels of occupational plutonium exposure had a somewhat higher incidence of a few types of cancers than were experienced by the general population. My primary focus was on the abstract of the report that says, “Mortality among 5413 white males who were employed at least two years…(at Rocky Flats) was investigated to measure risks from exposures to low levels of plutonium and external radiation. When compared with US death rates, fewer deaths than expected were found for all causes of death (and) all cancers…”  That remarkable result was reached despite the fact that 26 percent of the workers had body burdens of plutonium from occupational exposure.

I don’t read the report to be a basis for some of the dire warnings being issued about the risks to people who chose to spend a few hours visiting the refuge, since the average person working in the industrial area for at least two years was not at increased risk.  In fact, people visiting the area west of the former industrial area will be exposed to about the same amounts of plutonium as is in their back yards from worldwide fallout. Anyone wanting to minimize their exposure to plutonium should avoid mountains where snow washed out higher levels of fallout.

I will post dissenting comments if they are civil, to the point, and factual. Other than that, I intend to move on to subjects that are more enjoyable.