Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant

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Rocky Flats nuclear plant

The production of nuclear weapons inherently poses serious risks to the environment .At any point in the production process, radioactive materials may escape into the surrounding air and water, and safe methods for the disposal of waste from the manufacturing process still have not been developed. The environmental risks posed by the production of nuclear weapons are illustrated by the history of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Munitions Plant, located 16 mi (26 km) northwest of Denver, Colorado.

Rocky Flats was built in 1952, following an extensive search for sites at which to build plants for the processing of plutonium metal, a critical raw material used in the production of nuclear weapons. Authorities wanted a location that was close enough to a large city to attract scientists, but far enough away to ensure the safety of city residents.

Another important factor in site selection was wind measurements. The government wanted to be sure that, in the event of an accident, radioactive gases would not be blown over heavily populated areas. The selection of Rocky Flats was justified on the basis of wind measurements made at Denver's Stapleton airport, showing that prevailing winds blow from the south in that area. Had the same studies been carried out at Rocky Flats itself, however, they would have shown that prevailing winds come from the northwest, and any release of radioactive gases would be carried not away from Denver but toward it.

Over the next four decades, this unfortunate mistake was to have serious consequences as spills, leaks, fires, and other accidents became routine at Rocky Flats. On September 11, 1957, for example, the filters on glove boxes caught fire and burned for 13 hours. These filters were used to prevent plutonium dust on used gloves from escaping into the outside air, but once the fire began this is exactly what happened. The release of plutonium was even accelerated when workers turned on exhaust fans to clear the plant of smoke . Smokestack monitors showed levels of plutonium 16,000 times greater than the maximum recommended level. Officials at Rocky Flats reportedly made no effort to notify local authorities or residents about the accidental release of the radioactive gases.

This incident reflects the contradiction between the commitment of the United States government to the development of nuclear weapons and its concern for protecting the health of its citizens, as well as the natural environment. In 1992, a government report on Rocky Flats accused the Department of Energy (DOE) of resisting efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state environmental agencies to make nuclear weapons plants comply with environmental laws and regulations. DOE officials defended this policy by saying that Rocky Flats was the only site in the United States at which plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were being produced.

The Rocky Flats plant was originally operated by Dow Chemical Company. In 1975, Rockwell International Corporation replaced Dow as manager of the plant. Over the next 14 years, Rockwell faced increasing criticism for its inattention to safety considerations both within the plant and in the surrounding area.

Rockwell's problems came to a head on a June morning in 1989, when a team of 75 FBI agents entered the plant and began searching the 6,550-acre (2,653-ha) complex for evidence of deliberate violations of environmental laws. As a result of the search, Rockwell was relieved of its contract at Rocky Flats and replaced by EG&G, Inc., an engineering firm based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The ensuing investigation of safety violations lasted over two years and in March 1992 Rockwell plead guilty to 10 crimes, five of them felonies, involving intentional violations of environmental laws. The company agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines, the second largest fine for an environmental offense in United States history.

The fine did not, however, end the dispute over the safety record at Rocky Flats. Rockwell officials claimed that the Department of Energy was also at fault for the plant's poor environmental record. The company argued that the DOE had not only exempted them from environmental compliance but had even encouraged it to break environmental laws, especially hazardous waste laws. The federal grand jury that investigated the Rocky Flats case agreed with Rockwell. Not only was the DOE equally guilty, the grand jury decided, but the plant's new manager, EG&G, was continuing to violate environmental laws even as the case was being heard in Denver. Members of the jury were so angry about the way the case had been handled that they wrote President Bill Clinton, asking him to investigate the government's role at Rocky Flats.

Secretary of Energy James Watkins had closed Rocky Flats for repairs in November 1989 and it remained closed during the course of the investigation. Rocky Flat's problems appeared to be over in January 1992 when EG&G announced that, after spending $50 million in repairs, the plant was ready to re-open. Within a matter of days, however, Secretary Watkins ordered that weapons production at the plant permanently cease.

When Secretary Watkins made his decision to close Rocky Flats, the area faced two environmental challenges. In the first place, the site contained the largest stockpile of weapons grade plutonium in the United States, totaling more than 14 tons of the metal. The plutonium had been left in whatever form it occurred at the time of the plant shutdown, including water solutions, partially machined parts, and raw materials. The plutonium poses a threat because of its potential for starting fires, exposing workers to radiation, and threatening nearby communities in the event of an accident at the site.

In the second environmental challenge, buildings and facilities covering a 6,500 acre (2,630 ha) region had become seriously contaminated during the plant's 40-year lifetime. While a less serious short-term danger, this extensive contamination still poses a threat that could extend over centuries without some action to deal with it.

Agencies responsible for the future of Rocky Flatsprimarily the EPA, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Boarddecided on a two-prong approach to the clean-up of Rocky Flats. The first step is to deal with the immediate threat of plutonium left behind on the site by finding safe ways of safely storing the material. This step involves activities such as draining tanks and pipes that have been used for plutonium-containing solutions; venting plutonium-containing waste drums and tanks of hydrogen gas that has built up within them; and re-packaging containers in which plutonium has been stored, making them safer for long-term storage. The cost of this operation in the site's first full year of clean-up was $573 million and employed an estimated 9,374 workers.

The second stage of the Rocky Flats clean-up operation will involve dealing with contamination that had developed on the site over its 40-year history. For this purpose, Rocky Flats was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund in 1989. Among the challenges to be solved in this clean-up are soil and groundwater that have been contaminated by the burial of nuclear materials, chemicals , spills, and other accidents. There are also tens of thousands of cubic yards of wastes produced while the plant was in operation that must now be shipped to some permanent storage area. Originally estimated to take upwards of 70 years, a contract was signed by DOE and Kaiser-Hill on January 24, 2000 to have the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site (renamed soon after production closure) closed by December 15, 2006. As of 2002, the project was operating well within the six year time frame.

[David E. Newton ]



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Schneider, K. "U.S. Shares Blame in Abuses at A-Plant." New York Times (March 27, 1992): A12.

Wald, M. L. "Rockwell To Plead Guilty and Pay Large Fine for Dumping Waste." New York Times (March 26, 1992): A1.

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U.S. Department of Energy. Rocky Flats Closure Project. [cited July 2002]. <>.

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Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant

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