Just as the Bush administration is gearing up new nuclear weapons production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a series of big projects involving the leftovers of the most toxic weapons man has created at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a dose of reality has crept in. It came in the form of a verdict from a Denver jury that concluded that 13,000 property owners around the old Rocky Flats nuclear plant had been lied to and had their homes devalued.
The two companies that managed Rocky Flats, the awful DOE plant that built plutonium bomb triggers until the 1980s, were found to have exposed nearby homes to plutonium “through their negligence, endangering people’s health and contaminating their property” the federal jury said.
The jurors recommended Dow Chemical Co., which ran the plant in the 1950s and 60s and Rockwell International, a well known aerospace contractor that ran the plant until it was closed in the 1980s, pay $553.9 million in damages.
“This isn’t a windfall, this is making up for what these people lost,” said attorney Bruce DeBoskey, who, according to the Associated Press, spent 12 years on the case for the plaintiffs.
Dow told the AP that the company would appeal the verdict and argued through defense attorney David Bernick that the judge wrongly allowed the jury to hear that the Department of Energy was a conspirator in the cover-up. According to an AP report, “During the four-month trial, attorneys for the landowners presented a study showing higher rates of lung cancer near the plant. Bernick dismissed the cancer claims as ‘junk science,’ saying the study didn’t indicate how long the patients had lived near Rocky Flats.”
It took jurors more than two weeks to determine that the damage from the radioactive material will probably never disappear. The jury said the two companies caused the plaintiffs “to be exposed to plutonium and (placed) them at some increased risk of health problems.”
The verdict assessed punitive damages of $110.8 million against Dow and $89.4 million against Rockwell, now called Rockwell Automation, The jury also recommended that the two companies pay $352 million in actual damages. U.S. District Judge John Kane must review the verdict and lawyers on both sides expect the total may be lowered. AP reported that the Federal Government will probably pay the legal defense and court costs of its former contractors in the case. The Rocky Flats facility was closed in 1989 after a long series of mishaps. There was an incident in the late 1980s when Federal officials testing the plant’s security actually managed to get a bomb into the facility and remove a large amount of plutonium in the trunk of an ordinary car. Like Savannah River, the Rocky Flats site had a reputation for poor security.
The 6,240-acre site has been the subject of a decade-long clean up that has cost more than $7 billion. Rockwell had a long history of problems at the plant. The FBI secretly watched plant workers discharged hazardous waste in a sting called OPERATION DESERT GLOW. As a result of that FBI effort, Rockwell paid millions in fines for water quality and other violations at the site. The FBI agents also charged that after a raid in 1989 that Rockwell and Energy Department officials were aware of environmental violations and sought to conceal them from the FBI.
Much of the leftover plutonium from Rocky Flat’s has been shipped into South Carolina and is being stored at the Savannah River Site which is about to be made the main center for developing a new series of technologies to reinvigorate the world’s nuclear power industry.
The only problem is no one has figured out how to get rid of radioactive waste. Environmentalists believe that problem is a lesser evil than the global warming nightmares of continued massive consumption of fossil fuels. This is a continuation of the battle between those worried about arms proliferation and terrorism and those who believe global warming may make the threat of nuclear terrorism or another plant accident seem minor compared to the global warming problem.
Recent NASA studies show that we are losing glacier ice coverage at astoundingly higher rates than previously believed. Northern Greenland is putting the global warning issue in the immediate crisis category. The issue may not be a choice between fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It may be that nuclear energy, which does not contribute significantly to global warming, may be the lesser of two evils. The reality is nuclear energy may win in the marketplace if recent corporate purchases and new efforts to license plants in the United States are any indication. After no plants being licensed since 1978, we now find numerous applications are being submitted. France went all nuclear in the 1960s and it never solved the waste storage problem.
The role of Savannah River under the administration’s plan will be to meet the challenge of making a safe plant that can burn off weapons material. Engineers and scientists say it can be done but it will be far from a foolproof system.