NEW YORK (Reuters) - Radiological and heavy metal contamination closed a Colorado nuclear weapons facility to the public for decades, but soon it will open as a national wildlife refuge where people can watch hawks and elk.
The U.S. Energy Department this week said it transferred 4,000 acres of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production site, 16 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use as a nature refuge.
The government will need at least a year to open up a short trail to the public at the refuge, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Dean Rundle said. “There are a lot of weeds in there,” he said, adding that roads also need to be cleared. Opening the rest of the refuge could take three to five years to secure necessary funds, he said.
During the Cold War, the Rocky Flats plant made triggers for nearly every nuclear weapon in the United States. The manufacturing process released radiation, hazardous chemical compounds and heavy metals including plutonium, uranium poisoning the air, water and ground, the DOE said.
Nearly 2,700 Rocky Flats workers have filed claims with the government over their illnesses, according to the United Steelworkers of America. So far, 807 have been approved and 617 denied.
In 1983, 17,000 protesters joined hands encircling the site’s 17-mile (27-km) perimeter to protest the Cold War nuclear arms buildup.
The site closed in 1989 after federal agents raided it on accusations of environmental crimes were being committed by Rockwell International, the Energy Department contractor who operated Rocky Flats. The Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site. The cleanup took 10 years and cost about $7 billion.
The Energy Department will retain about 1,300 acres (526 hectares) in the center of the site that still has low levels of residual contamination.