Drilling for Radioactive Gas?

  • The Rulison device at insertion, 1969 (Photo courtesy of the US Department of Energy Digital Photo Archive)

There are proposals to drill for oil
and gas very close to the site of a
nuclear explosion. The device was
exploded underground in western Colorado
40 years ago this month. Natural gas
from wells near the site could be
distributed throughout the U.S. Some
experts are concerned the natural gas
could be radioactive. Conrad Wilson
reports regulators could allow drilling
closer to the blast site in the next
couple of years:

Transcript

There are proposals to drill for oil
and gas very close to the site of a
nuclear explosion. The device was
exploded underground in western Colorado
40 years ago this month. Natural gas
from wells near the site could be
distributed throughout the U.S. Some
experts are concerned the natural gas
could be radioactive. Conrad Wilson
reports regulators could allow drilling
closer to the blast site in the next
couple of years:

On September 10, 1969 the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 40-kiloton
nuclear bomb a mile and a half under ground. It was called Project Rulison. The
bomb was three times the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima.

The idea was to find peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. The federal government
hoped that nukes could be used to free up pockets of gas trapped below.

(sound of video)

The nuke did free up gas.

The government tested the gas by flaring it – burning it in the open – over the next
year. They discovered the natural gas was radioactive.

Marian Wells is a long time resident of Rulison. Her parent’s home was close to
the detonation site and the gas flares. Both of her parents died of cancer. So did
many of her neighbors.

She spoke before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“My parents were given no notice that you were flaring contaminated gas. And
yet both my parents died of cancer. Cancer is prevalent in this area. And yes, no
one has studied those cause and effect. You don’t really care about us.”

There’s been no government studies connecting cancer and the Rulison blast,
but the community remains fearful and suspicious.

Gas drilling is allowed as close as three miles of the blast site. That natural gas
is piped around the country.

Now some companies say they want to drill for natural gas within a half mile of
ground zero.

The Department of Energy maintains that, for the most part, the gas near the
blast site is safe, but there’s some uncertainly.

Jack Craig heads up the Rulison site for the Department of Energy. Craig says
drilling closer to the nuclear blast site should move forward slowly.

“What we’re saying is do it in a sequential manor. So that you come in slowly
testing the wells as you go in for contaminants – specifically tritium – and, if you
don’t find anything, move in closer.”

Tritium is a radioactive substance produced by the blast. Breathing tritium can
cause cancer.

Chris Canfield works on environmental protection for the state oil and gas
commission. He heads up an annual audit on the Rulison site.

Canfield: “Simply put, everything that’s coming out of the ground is being
sampled, being analyzed.”

Wilson: “If someone were to come to you and say they want to drill within the
half mile of the Rulison blast site, would you say that’s safe?”

Canfield: “I wouldn’t really know at this time.”

Canfield says that the state would require a special hearing before it would
approve any drilling permits any closer.

Oil and gas commissioner Jim Martin says there are still too many unanswered
questions to allow drilling that close to the blast site.

“There are significant information gaps and that makes is very difficult to really
understand the risks either to the workers or to the public who live within some
distance of the drill site.”

Martin says he understands why people are skeptical. He says the United States
has made a lot of mistakes with radioactive materials. Navajo uranium miners
got cancer because of radio exposure. People downwind of above ground
detonations suffered. Martin says skepticism is warranted.

“So it’s not unreasonable to ask some pretty tough questions of the federal
government before we go further into that half mile perimeter and produce more
gas.”

Gas that could be burned to heat homes across the U.S.

For The Environment Report, I’m Conrad Wilson.

Related Links

Tourists Drawn to A-Bomb Historic Sites

  • These three monks walked 1600 miles from San Francisco to the Trinity Test Site. They came "full circle" to extinguish a flame kindled by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima that had destroyed their Buddhist shrine. Keigaku Muchu is in the center. (Photo by Paul Adams)

Sixty years ago the first nuclear weapon was tested in the New Mexico
desert. A month later two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. It brought
World War II to a swift end. There are tourists who are interested in the
history of these weapons of mass destruction. They find the historical
sites of the atomic age are hard to get to and still controversial. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan reports:

Transcript

Sixty years ago, the first nuclear weapon was tested in the New Mexico desert, ushering in the dawn of the atomic age. A month later, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. It brought World War II to a swift end. There are tourists who are interested in the history of weapons of mass destruction. They might find the historical sites of the atomic age are hard to get to and still controversial. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan reports:


(Sound of monks chanting)


Keigaku Muchu is a Buddhist monk. Since the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese monks have walked back and forth between these two cities with a lantern that was lit by a flame captured from the smoldering ruins of their shrine, which had been destroyed.


In Zen Buddhism, sixty years is considered a sacred cycle. So this summer, they took a new pilgrimage to the Trinity Site in New Mexico. That’s where the atomic bomb was first tested. They wanted to close the cycle from where the atomic destruction started to where it ended in Japan. Keigaku says his journey helped him join spiritually to countless supporters who never want atomic weapons used again.


“So if people in northern America want to come physically to the Trinity site, that’s great too. But if they can’t come, they can be connected. I can connect with them spiritually.”


The monks were not alone on their 1600-mile overland trek from San Francisco in searing desert heat to the Trinity site. This walk was organized by Matt Taylor, co-executive director of the Global Nuclear Disarmament Fund. He says the walk has multiple missions.


“The main thing we’re trying to achieve is bringing the atomic claim that has been kindled from the ashes of Hiroshima back to the trinity site where it began, closing a sixty-year cycle.”


The Trinity test site is located on the White Sands Missile Range. The military holds an open house at the Trinity test site just two days per year. Jim Eckles is a spokesperson for the missile range.


“We get two to three thousand folks during each open house, and they come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, from all over the country. You’ll see young families, young kids, students on a science project, old people who were alive at World War II, veterans who come up and say, ‘I was getting ready to go to the Pacific and this saved my life,’ motorcycle gang members – you name it they come.”


Eckles says the Department of Defense is not likely to stop using the missile range just to welcome more atomic tourists. But the military is preserving the Trinity site.


“It’s significant because it is the first atomic bomb explosion or test site. It did change our lives. The Cold War had a different tone to it because of nuclear weapons and them hanging over our heads. And of course, they are still out there so they still influence us.”


And world headlines about nuclear proliferation still make history a flash point.


At another historic atomic site, the job of preserving is a little more difficult. John Isaacson is a resource manager in the environmental stewardship division at Los Alamos National Laboratories. There, the Manhattan Project was the code name for the top-secret program to build the atomic bomb. Isaacson says we’re still trying to understand what to make of the beginning of the atomic age.


“This is history that is gone through a number of different sort of re-analyses in the past fifty years since the end of the war and it’s still very alive for many people, a very real history for many people”


But there’s a problem. Manhattan Project buildings at Los Alamos are deteriorating. Most are wooden and were thrown up hastily by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although today, the public doesn’t get to see the site because it’s deep within a security zone, Isaacson says it should be preserved.


“I think the Manhattan Project is a real good example of this very controversial, unresolved historical process that, by preserving the buildings, it allows people to think about it, and it’s important to think about it.”


Isaacson wants us to keep the buildings in good repair for the day when they can be opened to the public. He’s getting some help. The Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. is helping them and other Manhattan Project sites across the country raise eighty-eight million dollars to refurbish properties that are historically significant to the start of the atomic age.


For the GLRC, I’m Mary Ann Colihan.

Related Links

Not Quite Ready for Bioterrorist Attack

  • Mock evidence of radiological material to make a dirty bomb gives trainees an idea of the kind of materials they might find in a terrorist operation. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:

Transcript

Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In
addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training
to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:


(coughing)


These two men are the victims of some kind of biological toxin. They were investigating
an abandoned rental truck and now they’re writhing on the ground after a package
spewed some kind of liquid.


(chatter between mock victims) “You alright, man?” “What was that?” “I don’t know
what that was. It hurts.”


These guys are acting. They’re part of a huge training exercise put on by the
Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of firefighters, emergency medical personnel,
EPA investigators, the FBI and people in t-shirts identifying themselves with acronyms
for agencies most of us have never heard of. They’re all working through a couple of
scenarios. So far today, they’ve discovered radioactive material to make dirty bombs and
some kind of lab set up to make a chemical like sarin nerve gas… and then there’s the
rental truck which is loaded with nasty chemicals.


Mark Durno is the U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator…


“We have some very distinct objectives with this exercise. One is to practice responding
to unusual situations that might involve weapons of mass destruction. In this particular
exercise, we’re practicing chemical agent and radiological agent response.”


There are lots of new things to learn. Coordination between agencies… and new
techniques. In this exercise, Detroit city departments are learning to work with federal
agencies. Melvin Green is with the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services. He
says this exercise is good. He’d rather see his medical technicians make mistakes here
than during a real emergency… where his worst fears might be realized.


“I would have to say that, you know, them become casualties, that’s probably my biggest
fear. This is why we want to educate them on—and this is why the exercise is so
important. We want to educate them on the possibilities. Keeping our people safe
reduces casualties.”


That’s because if the emergency medical personnel are hurt… fewer people will be
treated.


The idea of a terrorist attack with radiological or biological agents is the kind of
nightmarish scenario that no one really wants to think about… but it’s something
emergency responders HAVE to think about.


During this day-long exercise… these trainees are upbeat, they’re confident in their
response. They feel they’ve come a long way in the nearly three years since 9/11.


But other emergency service experts are not quite as upbeat. Just 40 miles from this
training exercise… at the University of Michigan Hospital’s Department of Emergency
Medicine, Administrator Peter Forster says there are weaknesses in preparedness for
terrorist attacks.


“We’ve made a lot of progress from where we were, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”


Forster says when victims start showing up at the hospital emergency rooms…. there will
be bottle-necks…


“Most emergency preparedness activities have been geared toward local events with
relatively small numbers of victims. When we start talking about hundreds of people or
thousands of people injured or hurt, or exposed to some toxic or contagious substance,
then I think the health system would have a significantly difficult time expanding to meet
that requirement, regardless of how much, uh, how well we’re trained or how prepared
we are. We don’t really have the capacity on the health care side to manage a significant
influx of patients.”


Forster says plans to set up emergency medical facilities in auditoriums, school gyms,
and maybe even hotel rooms need to be completed… arrangements made… and supplies
stockpiled.


(sound up of training exercise, generators, etc.)


Meanwhile, back in Detroit… investigators are putting on bulky chemical protection
suits—the ones that look like big space suits…blue, yellow, olive, with teal-colored
gloves and orange boots… you’d think of circus colors if the subject matter weren’t so
serious. After examining the mock lab, spending about an hour in the sweltering suits,
they come out for decontamination before their air tanks run out. The local agencies help
with decontamination… spraying and scrubbing the suits down.


(sound: beeping, scrubbing)


The training site has all the sights and sounds of a real emergency. Lots of emergency
vehicles… the noise of generators and the smell of diesel. But it’s fairly relaxed. There’s
none of the tension, none of the urgency of a real emergency.


The U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator, Mark Durno, says there are some things you
can’t bring to a drill…


“You can never simulate the adrenaline and the potential panic that’s associated with a
real event, especially when you hear the words ‘chemical’ and ‘radiological’ agent.
However, we can practice those little tools that we’re going to need to be absolutely
proficient at to ensure that when the panic hits, we’re ready to roll without any
hesitation.”


The days’ training has turned up a few glitches. Communication between agencies is
still a problem. Emergency radio frequencies need to be sorted out and coordinated. And
there are still some major gaps in preparedness that are not part of this training… such as
the emergency room capacity problem. But one of the bigger issues is money. Federal
money has been promised to local governments… but it’s been very slow in coming.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Plutonium Shipment Outrages Activists

Activists in Canada and the U-S are trying to stop plutonium from
dismantled warheads from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power
plants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… the
first shipment was recently slipped into Canada and another is coming
this spring:

Transcript

Activists in Canada and the U.S. are trying to stop plutonium from dismantled warheads

from being shipped to Canadian nuclear power plants. The Great Lakes Radio

Consortium’s Lester Graham reports the first shipment was recently slipped into Canada

and another is coming this spring:


The Canadian government plans to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled

nuclear warheads from Russia. Canada suggested it could mix the weapons-grade

plutonium with uranium and use it for fuel in its nuclear power plants.


Protestors in the U.S. and Canada vowed they’d stop the shipments. During public

hearings in Michigan, some environmentalists and politicians said they’d lie down in

the road to stop trucks. So, when the U.S. Department of Energy planned a shipment of

sample material, the DOE made the shipment classified. Nobody was told when or where

the plutonium would be shipped. This month, the secret shipment left Los Alamos and

entered Canada at Sault Sainte Marie.


Verna Lawrence is the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She’s outraged her town was

not notified the shipment was coming.


“We’d have barricaded I-75. I had people that would go with me. How dare they do that

to us in our area with the Great Lakes Basin. It’s crazy!”


Mayor Lawrence says the federal government is shipping the plutonium against the

wishes of the people.


“See, the Canadian government and the United States government are in cahoots. They

don’t give a damn about anybody else. And let me tell you another thing: the governors

are not protecting their citizens. If I was the governor and I had the National Guard

and the State Police, they would not set foot on the state of Michigan.”


Just on the other side of the border, the mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario also was

not notified.


Once in Canada, the shipment was put on a helicopter and flown to the Chalk River

Nuclear Power Plant where the fuel is being tested. Protestors say it was flown to

avoid blockades by activists and native people. The only road from Sault Ste. Marie to

the Chalk River Nuclear Plant runs through the Garden River Reservation. Cathy

Brosemer is with a coalition of environmental groups in Ontario called “Northwatch.”

She says the shipment was kept secret and the helicopter was used to avoid angry

peopole along the route.


“What we’ve been dealing with right now is the utter contempt the government holds its

citizens in. The government decided to ignore the public’s views on this issue and

literally fly over our heads.”


Canada’s nuclear industry says that’s not the case. Larry Shewchuck is a spokesperson

for Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited (AECL). AECL operates Canada’s nuclear power

plants. He says avoiding protestors was not the reason AECL used the helicopter.


“Quite frankly, AECL was just as happy to leave the shipment on the road. It was the

government of Canada that asked us to put it in the air because that’s what Canadians

were asking for. So, in the end, we did what the politicians wanted.”


Shewchuck says at public information stops this past fall, many people suggested if

the shipments were as safe as AECL and the Canadian government said they were, they

ought to fly them to the nuclear plant.


Protestors question whether a last minute switch from ground transportation to air was

a regulatory shell game to trick opponents of the plutonium shipments. Shewchuck says

the change was proper and followed the rules.


“The regulations in Canada did not have to be changed to accommodate air transport.

Air transport was made under existing Canadian regulations. Everything was done by the

book and nothing had to be changed.”


Environmental activists in the area don’t believe it. Cathy Brosemer says that flight

might have violated regulations and might be key in an effort to get an injunction.


“We believe that there have been some breaches in the way that this was handled and we

are going to try to get something to stop the test of the substance at the CANDU

reactors in Canton/Chalk River.”


The AECL plans to go ahead with tests of the plutonium mix fuel. Brosemer says the

environmentalists will also seek an injunction to stop future shipments. This spring,

Russian plutonium is scheduled to be shipped through the St. Lawrence Seaway, on

through the Great Lakes and finally to the Chalk River plant in Ontario.


The U.S. Department of Energy says there won’t be any more shipments from the States.

And official with the DOE spoke on the condition his name not be used. He says while

the United States is helping to pay for the disposal of plutonium from dismantled

Russian nuclear warheads, the U.S. has decided to use its plutonium in American

nuclear power plants.


The mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Verna Lawrence, doesn’t believe the Energy

Department. She says she and other people opposing the shipments have to be more

vigilant.


“We got to get somebody on the inside, I think. You know, that’s the only way we’re

going to – If you can’t lick ’em, trick ’em, you know. But we’ll figure out a way

because that’s just the first shipment. There’ll be many, many, many more.”


Officials in Canada and the U.S. say it’s ironic that the shipments are causing so

much controversy among some of the same people who opposed the nuclear arms race.

Canadian officials say the nuclear material as fuel is a safe and efficient way to

dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. If the mixed fuel works well in Canada’s nuclear

plants, regular shipments of plutonium from Russia’s dismantled warheads will travel

through the Great Lakes region for at least the next ten years.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Commentary – The Public’s Right to Say No

Earlier this month, the U-S completed a controversial shipment of
weapons grade plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest
before the event, the material was shipped without any public
knowledge.
As Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston points
out, this sets a dangerous precedent:

Transcript

Earlier this month, the U.S. completed a controversial shipment of weapons-grade

plutonium to Canada. Despite considerable protest before the event, the material was

shipped without public knowledge. This sets a dangerous precedent, as Great Lakes

Radio Consortium’s commentator Suzanne Elston points out:


Proponents of the plan think it’s a good idea. Take plutonium from dismantled nuclear

weapons, mix it with uranium and use it for fuel in nuclear reactors. The process

doesn’t destroy the plutonium, but what it does do is make it very difficult to use.

Supporters hope that this will prevent the plutonium from falling into the wrong

hands.


The plan had been in the works for several years. The problem was getting the stuff

from Los Alamos, New Mexico to an experimental nuclear facility in Chalk River,

Ontario. As soon as the public got wind of the trucking routes there were howls of

protest, particularly from a group of activists in Michigan. They were concerned about

the risks of an accident when the plutonium was shipped through their community. They

were desperately trying to get a court injunction to stop the plutonium from being

shipped when it was discovered that the stuff had already been sent.


There was no public input, no warning – nothing. Even the mayors of Sault Ste. Marie,

the towns where the plutonium crossed the border into Canada weren’t notified until

after the event. And because the whole thing went off without any problems, officials

were rather pleased with themselves. They duped the public, nobody got hurt – mission

accomplished.


I find this really scary. Whether the shipment was safe or not isn’t the issue here.

Not only does the public have a right to know what was going on, they also have the

right to stop it, if that’s the will of the people. But that right was taken away by

the boys at the Department of Energy and Atomic Energy Canada who seemed to think they

know better somehow.


Well guess what? That’s not what the democratic process is all about. Public input –

regardless of how inconvenient – has got to be considered. Just because a plan is

proposed, doesn’t mean that it should go ahead. Debate is the cornerstone of

democratic process. One of the possible outcomes of that debate is that the public

will exercise its right to say no.


But that wasn’t allowed to happen here. We the people are supposed to decide. That’s

called democracy.


Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Courtice, Ontario. She comes to us

by way of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.