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

Investigation Uncovers Bombing Site

An investigation has found that the Air Force used the
Apostle Islands and Lake Superior for bombing practice in the early 1970’s. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mike Simonson has the story:

Transcript

An investigation has found that the Air Force used the Apostle Islands and Lake
Superior for bombing practice in the early 1970’s. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mike Simonson has the story:


Jim Erickson was hoping to pull in a net full of fish one afternoon thirty years
ago, but his catch had a surprise. The Bayfield, Wisconsin fisherman had
snagged a missile.


“It was about four feet long and had some fins on it. They used to run those runs
outside of Outer Island there during the summer. Target practice, I guess.”


Erickson strapped the missile to the top of his fishing boat and tooled back to
Bayfield, where he handed it over to the Coast Guard. Erickson says he’s not
sure if the missile was a dummy or had live ammo. That’s one missile of three he
knows of that local fisherman pulled in around the Apostle Islands.


An investigation by the nearby Red Cliff tribe uncovered Erickson’s story. The
U.S. Department of Defense paid for that investigation. It is uncovering evidence
of different uses by the military of Lake Superior, including dumping tons of
ammunition after World War II.


For the GLRC, I’m Mike Simonson.

Recycling Nuclear Waste

Several Midwest universities will be part of a controversial
effort to improve the recycling of nuclear waste. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

Several Midwest universities will be part of a controversial effort to
improve the recycling of nuclear waste. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Spent nuclear fuel is piling up at many commercial nuclear power plants around the nation.
Scientists know how to re-process and re-use the fuel. but that’s currently not done
in the U.S. nuclear industry.


Michael Corradini is an Engineering Physics Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He says the re-use of nuclear waste can be improved… and he contends this is the moment to do
it.


“And with the need for energy… particularly electrical energy… this is a way to more efficiently
deal with our spent fuel.”


Wisconsin and other Big Ten universities with nuclear engineering programs will team up with
the University of Chicago for a recycling project at the Argonne National Lab in Illinois. But an
anti-nuclear group contends that trying to recycle more nuclear waste makes it more likely some
spent fuel will be made into bombs. The university scientists say safeguards will be taken to
prevent that from happening.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

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.