Tales from Rocky Flats, and why it should stay off-limits

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The former Rocky Flats Plant in July 1995.
Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that I find myself endorsing anything that the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center has its fingerprints on, but I agree that the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant grounds — now a wildlife sanctuary — shouldn’t be open to the public.

Leroy Moore, the Center’s point man on Rocky Flats and one of the leaders of the group trying to keep the site closed, is a disciplined researcher and a straight shooter. So is retired CU professor Harvey Nichols, another leader of the group. The fact that the feds are trying to keep them from testifying in court about the potential risks of turning the site into a de facto recreation area should raise red flags.

Back when I was a Boulder County Commissioner, I served for several years as Boulder County’s representative on the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments (RFCLOG). The coalition was made up of representatives from cities and counties surrounding Rocky Flats. It was supposed to be a source of local government input and oversight of the clean-up of the plant site.

More than 20 years earlier, as a reporter for a weekly paper in Boulder named Town & County Review (of blessed memory), I wrote a number of stories about Rocky Flats and the radioactive nasties that kept blowing and flowing out of the place.

Both of those experiences have left me with multiple doubts about the candor of the people running the plant when it was operating and the people who were in charge of cleaning it up.

Here are some of the reasons why:

The fires and the barrels: Back in 1969 there was a hell of a fire at Rocky Flats. It occurred in a room full of lathes that were used to machine the plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs.

The “triggers” (also called “pits”) are small atomic bombs based on the fission of plutonium atoms (like the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). They’re used to set off a thermo-nuclear bomb (what used to be called a hydrogen bomb) based on fusion of light elements (hydrogen or lithium). Rocky Flats manufactured tens of thousands of triggers before it was shut down in 1989.

Metallic plutonium will catch fire if it gets too hot, and for plutonium “too hot” isn’t very hot at all. The friction from a lathe used in shaping the trigger can ignite it. To prevent this from happening, the lathes at Rocky Flats were kept in air-tight glove boxes that were flooded with a non-flammable gas while the lathes were in operation.

Insanely, the glove boxes contained parts that could burn, like Plexiglas and the built-in rubber gloves. The fire started when a worker opened a glove box before the plutonium in it had cooled down. The plutonium caught fire and set the glove box aflame. The burning box set off other boxes, and before long the entire room was engulfed. The fire burned for hours, and a large black plume rose from the conflagration. Plant officials announced that no plutonium got off the plant site as a result of the fire.

Ed Martel, a radiochemist at NCAR at the time, was skeptical. So he and a graduate student working in his lab collected soil samples from as far away as 30 miles downwind. Lo and behold, they found elevated levels of plutonium in it.

Martel concluded that the folks running Rocky Flats had some splainin’ to do, and said so. Eventually a strangled voice was heard emanating from the executive bunker: “It’s not the fire; it’s the barrels.”

“The barrels?” inquiring minds asked. (The phrase WTF hadn’t been invented yet.)

It emerged that when plutonium triggers are being machined, they have to be continuously lubricated to keep the lathes from binding up. The lubricating oil gets contaminated with plutonium shavings.

Rocky Flats’ way of handling the waste oil was to pour it into 55-gallon steel drums and store them in an open field.

But rust never sleeps. After a couple of years, some of the barrels corroded and started to leak. Rocky Flats’ way of dealing with the leaks was to deploy a couple of guys to pour oil out of the rusting barrels into new barrels.

Eventually more than 3,000 barrels of plutonium-laced machine tool oil piled up.

(I think I was the first reporter to write about the barrels. Then Congressman Tim Wirth leaked a report on them to me a few days before it came out.)

Eventually the barrels and thousands of cubic yards of the soil they had been sitting on were shipped off to the nuclear plant at Hanford, Washington, for disposal (whatever that meant), and an asphalt patch was put over the site.

You might say they paved purgatory and made it a parking lot. Eventually they dug up the site at least two more times and shipped additional soil to Hanford.

Years later it emerged that blaming the elevated levels of plutonium that Martel first found on the leaking barrels was misleading. The plant’s suits were right when they said that minimal amounts of plutonium from the 1969 fire had blown off the plant site. But Rocky Flats had an earlier plutonium fire in 1957, which had produced much more airborne plutonium contamination. At the time Rocky Flats management and the Atomic Energy Commission flatly denied that there had been any off-site contamination from it. Martel’s collection of soil samples after the 1969 fire revealed the truth about the fire of ’57.

The takeaway from the barrel affair was that the people running the plant were insanely negligent in how they handled radioactive industrial waste that was a normal product of their operations. And it turned out it wasn’t temporary insanity either.

The first tritium incident: Not long after the barrel affair came to light, the director of the Jefferson County Health Department, Dr. Carl Johnson, started monitoring streams flowing out of Rocky Flats for radioactive nasties. And darned if he didn’t find some elevated levels of tritium in some of the samples.

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen. Isotopes are chemically identical versions of an element that differ in the number of neutrons they have in their nucleuses. The most common isotope of hydrogen consists of a proton, an electron and a single neutron. However there are two additional isotopes: deuterium, which has two neutrons, and tritium, which has three. Tritium is radioactive and has uses in making nuclear weapons. But that was a big secret at the time.

When Dr. Johnson announced what he had found, Rocky Flats management was beside itself. At first it tried to claim there was no tritium at Rocky Flats. That lasted for about 24 hours. Then they put out a story saying that the tritium had come into Rocky Flats in a shipment of nuclear “scrap” that had been sent to Rocky Flats from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The scrap included heavy water — H2O in which the H consisted of tritium instead of ordinary hydrogen — and that when a tech opened the container he carelessly poured the water down a drain. The water ran into a stream that eventually ran into Broomfield’s reservoir.

They intimated that the tritium spill was a freak accident — but they built holding ponds to prevent such a thing from happening again. At the time we had no way of knowing whether it was a fluke or not. Years later we found out it was no fluke.

At any rate, Dr. Johnson continued his investigations. Plant management vehemently objected to this. Dr. Johnson was eventually sacked by the Jefferson County Commissioners — evidently for being overly curious.

If you happen to be in the atom bomb business, tritium is kind of a multi-purpose secret sauce. A few grams of it can make a plutonium bomb (or trigger) more powerful, which means less plutonium is needed to make the trigger and that the trigger can be miniaturized.

None of this was widely known at the time, so the accidental release of tritium from Lawrence Livermore scrap yarn stood up for a long time. But the truth is tritium was and is an essential component of the triggers Rocky Flats was making, and the people who ran Rocky Flats did not want that known. So they lied.

The second tritium incident: Fast forward to 2004. The Rocky Flats cleanup was winding down. And as part of finishing the work, workers did a final sweep of the soil covering one of the two Rocky Flats landfills, which held thousands of tons of waste (some of it mildly radioactive but with relatively short half-lives). The landfills had been declared secure enough that the radioactive stuff wouldn’t leak out until it had a chance to decay into harmless elements.

But the guys doing the final sweep found tritium on the surface of the landfill.

This was reported at a meeting of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments. The reaction of most of the members of the coalition was “how interesting, let’s move on,” but the disclosure set off my crap detector. So I started interrogating the guy who made the report about where the tritium came from, how it got into the landfill, how it could have leaked out, and so on.

The guy didn’t answer my questions, which I repeated several times. He didn’t dodge them. He didn’t say “No comment,” or “I can’t answer that,” or “I don’t know.” He just didn’t answer them. He just stood mute. Complete stonewall. I had never had that sort of a response before, either as an elected official or a reporter.

Now as radioactive materials go, tritium is relatively benign. Its radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper, it has a relatively short half-life, and it usually is encountered as part of a water molecule, which means that if you happen to drink it, chances are you’ll piss it out or sweat it out in a few days. The tritium on the surface of the landfill would have quickly evaporated and been diluted by water vapor in the air to natural levels. But the incident showed that when it came to tritium Rocky Flats management was still hiding something. The obvious follow-up question was what else were they hiding — about the contents of the landfill and the cleanup generally. I’ve been wondering about it for 14 years now, and about why the guy clammed up like he did. At least he wasn’t lying. 

The pylon cores: One day I got a call from a couple of guys at Xcel Energy who wanted to have lunch and talk about an issue they had regarding Rocky Flats. It turned out Xcel needed to install a high tension power line along Indiana Street on the east side of Rocky Flats in order to adequately serve Broomfield’s new Flatirons Crossing shopping center; malls of Flatirons Crossing’s size suck a lot of juice. Xcel needed to put one of their pylons on Rocky Flats ground near the plant’s east gate. Installing the pylon would require drilling down 40 or 50 feet to bedrock. They wanted to know if I had any objections.

I told them I didn’t, but that if they were drilling to bedrock, I wondered if they could save the material they were taking out of the holes so that it could be analyzed for radioactive nasties that might be migrating out of the plant in ground water. They had no problem with that and said they would do it.

A couple of weeks later I got a call from them informing me that they had told Rocky Flats officials about my request, and that it had been rejected out of hand.

The obvious question is why didn’t the folks who were in charge of the clean-up want obviously useful information about possible contamination to be collected — especially since the clean-up was going to leave a lot of underground contamination in place?

The obvious answer is corporate greed and ass-covering — that they were continuing Rocky Flats’ grand tradition of covering up sloppy and negligent behavior in the handling of radioactive materials, that the cores might have revealed that radionuclides were in the groundwater seeping off the plant site, despite the claims that the problem was under control.

But I think the obvious answer is insufficient, and that there is something more involved as well, which explains a lot of the secrecy and lying.

You can learn a lot about people and institutions by going through their garbage. In the case of Rocky Flats, that might include how to make atomic bombs, how to miniaturize them, and how to mass produce them, among other things. That sort of information should be closely held, even if it causes increased risks to the people around the plant — because it could cause orders of magnitude greater risks in the wrong hands. (By the same token, it means that Rocky Flats’ shit, slop and piss way of handling its waste wasn’t just an environmental lapse but a national security lapse as well.)

After Dr. Johnson discovered tritium in the waste stream, samples were taken from the sediments in several of the surrounding streams and reservoirs, and a number of long-lived isotopes were found in them, including Americium. Chances are environmentalists would immediately ask what dangers to public health does Americium pose? A foreign intelligence service of a nuclear wannabe nation might ask what’s Americium used for in American nuclear weapons? Do we need it if we’re going to make our own?

In 2002 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the body of a deer “harvested” on Rocky Flats contained isotopes of plutonium and Americium, and the relatively rare Uranium 233 and 234. Fish and Wildlife wanted to know how much deer meat you would have to eat over a 70-year lifespan to increase your risk of getting cancer (62 pounds a year, they concluded.) A spook would want to know what Uranium 233 and 234 were doing in the deer; Rocky Flats’ triggers were made of plutonium, so what was the Uranium used for?

The same sort of questions were almost certainly asked when Dr. Johnson first announced his tritium discovery.

Rocky Flats managers were certainly aware that the plant’s garbage could spill nuclear secrets, so they properly tried to keep its content hidden — by lying about it if necessary. Greed and ass-covering may have played a role in this. But so did civic responsibility and patriotism, I think.

The non-cleanup cleanup: The Rocky Flats cleanup was not as thorough as the feds would like you to think it was. Miles of underground pipes that moved radioactive materials between buildings were left in place because it was too daunting, and too expensive to remove them — even though it was known that they had radioactive residues in them and that some of them had leaked. In some cases the only remediation was that if they were in tunnels they were grouted. In other cases nothing was done. Which means that as time goes by there may be environmental hazards and U.S. nuclear secrets leaking out of them for decades.

Think of the old plant site not as a remediated superfund site, but as a 410-acre buried nuclear garbage can full of poisons and secrets that need to be guarded. The plant site is supposed to remain fenced and closed. But memories are short, and within a few decades a generation will arise that knows not all the shit that went on at Rocky Flats and what is still buried there, and what might be seeping out, and will start treating even the plant site as a picnic ground.

When I was on RFCLOG I argued that decent respect for both the hazards and the secrets meant the place should be kept off-limits for a couple of centuries, until technology emerges that makes it possible to clean the site up properly and enough time has passed that the secrets have become irrelevant.

One final point, which has nothing to do with radioactive wastes or national security.

Rocky Flats is supposed to be a national wildlife sanctuary, not a national recreation area. How about giving the critters a genuine sanctuary, instead of having hundreds of thousands of tourists a year traipsing through their space? What kind of a sanctuary is that?

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.