U.S. nuclear weapons have left a toxic legacy. Filmmaker Nancy Wolfe shines a spotlight.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, the riverbank next to Revere Copper and Brass—a former nuclear weapons plant—collapsed into the Detroit River. Many Detroiters missed the event. Most Americans, who remain largely in the dark about the dangers of crumbling former nuclear weapons sites, also missed it. Yet, this was only one in a string of recent revelations about the ongoing impacts of our Cold War nuclear weapons production. In January, testing came back with reportable levels of uranium, lead and other heavy metals.
On the Island of Runit in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. detonated 67 atomic bombs between 1946 and 1958. This past year, Columbia University’s K=1 Project measured more radiation in the soil there than at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Over 3 million cubic feet of radioactive soil and debris remains buried on the island. The radiation continues to threaten communities and the environment there.
In Idaho in 2018, a major spill of radioactive sludge at the Idaho National Laboratory sent waves of panic among local residents. First discovered as a leaking barrel, it was later confirmed that four barrels of nuclear waste had ruptured on the site.
Also in 2018, the federal government opened the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. This recreation area sits on 6,500 acres that were formerly the 'buffer zone' around the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. For decades, the facility sent radioactive plutonium into the air, water and soil of surrounding communities. A wave of activism in Colorado resulted in new testing of the public lands in the summer of 2019. The results contained the highest levels of contamination ever tested on the site, sending the region into a tailspin. Claims from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) call the test “an outlier.”
Decades of misinformation about the environmental and public health impacts of our nuclear weapons plants should put everyone on guard. As these now-defunct nuclear weapons sites are either being cleaned up or left to crumble, what issues do we need to know about? Michigan state agencies claimed that the collapse at Revere released no radioactivity, but can they be trusted? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) tested the site for contamination after the Revere collapse. Similar to CDPHE’s response to recent testing at the Rocky Flats Refuge, a recent press release from EGLE claims excessive lead levels were an outlier, citing the results of prior testing.
The former Revere site has not gone through testing since the Department of Energy (DOE)’s last study in 1980. But there seems to be a disconnect here. Is it the EPA’s responsibility to deal with the potential for debris of DOE manufacturing sites? These questions of who is responsible really come to a head when the public’s health is at risk – who is to blame for the apparent uranium sediments at the riverbank? Who is watching? And how can residents make sure that their drinking source has been properly tested?
And, what other testing should we do on these lands? If water sources are tainted, what are the implications for other environmental dangers? What are the health impacts? And it has now been widely determined that climate change is posing new threats to the hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear waste in unstable storage around the country.
What we need now is an Environmental Protection Agency that will carefully watch these aging sites and continue to test for further health and environmental risks. I am currently directing a documentary film called, ROCKY FLATS. It highlights the issue of radioactive contamination in the Denver area. It also sheds light on the very same issues for other sites. The public has a right to know about the potential health impacts of our Cold War-era nuclear sites.
The issue is far from outdated history. In December 2019, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA increases production of nuclear weapons, putting even more neighborhoods in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Georgia at risk.
As frontline community members become more active stewards of our lands, we move into an uncertain future. Everyone should be responding to the call for action. From Michigan to Colorado, public pressure remains one of the primary avenues for pushing government bodies to action. People living in these communities are fighting the invisible menace of radioactive contamination. But, all Americans need greater awareness and action on this issue.
Filmmaker and writer Nancy Wolfe is the founder of Wherewolfe Productions in New York City. Her documentary ROCKY FLATS, about the ongoing impacts of the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado, is her feature directing debut. Prior credits include Democracy Now!, Fit to Print, and Off Country. ROCKY FLATS is being produced with the fiscal sponsorship of the esteemed Women Make Movies, and was a participant in the 2018 Reel Non-Fiction Documentary Lab. Please visit wherewolfeproductions.com today to find out more and support this important project, which is being funded by concerned citizens like you. Nancy also works as an imaging specialist at Columbia University Libraries, and is the co-founder of Documentary Filmmakers Anonymous, a support group for NYC-based documentary filmmakers.