Former Colorado nuke site opens to public as wildlife refuge
DENVER: Cyclists and hikers explored a newly opened wildlife refuge at the site of a former nuclear weapons plant in Colorado, while a protester in a gas mask brought signs warning about the dangers of plutonium.
With no fanfare, the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened the gates of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on the perimeter of a government factory that made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs for nearly four decades.
Spread across a rolling, windswept plateau 26km northwest of downtown Denver, the refuge is a rare oasis of tallgrass prairie, with bears, elk, falcons, songbirds and hundreds of other species.
The refuge offers sweeping panoramas of the Rocky Mountain foothills and Denver’s skyscrapers.
“You get these incredible views,” said Jerry Jacka, who spent two hours mountain biking at the refuge on Saturday.
Jacka said he was not worried about his safety, despite lawsuits and protests by people who argued the government has not tested the refuge thoroughly enough to make sure people are safe using it.
“I don’t believe that they’re covering up any sort of information about pollutants and radioactive elements and stuff in the soil,” Jacka said.
The government built plutonium triggers at Rocky Flats from 1952 to 1989, a history marred by fires, leaks and spills. The plant was shut down after a criminal investigation into environmental violations.
The US Energy Department, which oversaw the plant, said it found 28kg of plutonium stuck in exhaust ducts of buildings.
Rockwell International, the contractor then operating the plant, was fined US$18.5mil (RM76.5mil) after pleading guilty in 1992 to charges that included mishandling chemical and radioactive material.
The weapons complex covered 5sq km at the centre of the site. It was cleaned up at a cost of US$7bil (RM28.9bil) but remains off-limits to the public.
The 21sq km buffer zone surrounding the manufacturing site was turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a refuge.
About 16km of trails are now open at the refuge. Visitors are told to stay on the paths and not wander the grasslands.