MINDING THE STORE

THEY DON'T MAKE BOMBS ANYMORE AT ROCKY FLATS. BUT THE PLANT IS AS DANGEROUS AS EVER.

But the plant's overall budget has soared, not shrunk, under EG&G's stewardship. The budget has climbed from $437 million in 1989, when Rockwell International's contract as managing contractor was canceled, to this year's figure of $823 million. Mann attributes the increases to the plant's change in mission from weapons production to environmental cleanup. Silverman, however, contends that too little work is being done for the money.

Silverman also has found the company's safety performance lacking. His March letter to EG&G listed numerous references to criticality safety, and generally painted a portrait of the company as a corporate Homer Simpson asnooze at the switch. But Silverman says the energy department's official position is that there are no "imminent safety problems" at the plant. "We have, I believe, manageable safety concerns," he says. "None of them at this time--knock on wood--are imminent." The bottom line on EG&G, he says, is that "they need to do better than they are doing."

Zane says EG&G has made "substantial, steady improvement during the last three years" in its safety programs, and Mann extolls the company's commitment to maintaining the "safety envelope" of plant facilities, particularly buildings containing plutonium and other fissile material.

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EG&G is managing the plant well enough, says Silverman, that "I don't lose a lot of sleep every night worrying whether we're going to have a criticality incident. I worry about it, but I don't lose any sleep over it."

When Rockwell's tenure at Rocky Flats ended in 1989 after a dramatic raid by FBI agents, EG&G took the reins with the energy department's full blessing. The company, after all, was nothing if not experienced in pleasing the Department of Energy. It already held contracts at several DOE facilities, including two--the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and the so-called Mound Plant, in Miamisburg, Ohio--with a history of nuclear weapons work.

At Rocky Flats, however, it hasn't taken long for that cozy relationship to deteriorate. Eighteen months ago, for instance, an EG&G manager in Building 779 issued a well-publicized memo identifying nine potentially dangerous cases of improper storage of nuclear material. He titled the document "Items of Concern, Or Ticking Timebombs."

R.J. Ballenger didn't mean to suggest a nuclear explosion was imminent. He was worried about two other dangers: a criticality incident or a fire. Either can result from less than diligent handling of plutonium or other fissile material. Plutonium is pyrophoric, meaning it can spontaneously ignite. That ominous capacity has caused three major fires in the plant's history and perhaps as many as 150 minor blazes.

In his memo, Ballenger noted that when plutonium operations were halted at Rocky Flats in November 1989, personnel assumed it was a temporary curtailment. Fissile material in a variety of forms was left in short-term storage conditions in Building 779, where plutonium research and development was being conducted.

Today, the situation hasn't changed. Plutonium bomb parts, which had been packaged inadequately for three to seven years at the time of Ballenger's memo, sit there still, open to mishaps. DOE spokeswoman Beth Brainard-Jordan says an "action plan" has been developed for the transfer and storage of the material, but adds that the plan has yet to be implemented.

Workers say Ballenger was dressed down by superiors for his use of the phrase "Ticking Timebombs." EG&G spokeswoman Ellen Murray denies those reports, and notes that Ballenger remains in his job.

Concerns about safety procedures such as the situation Ballenger detailed in his memo were one reason the company began its highly touted mentor program. "To get our employees and supervisors to understand the new, disciplined, procedure-driven operation that we needed to put in place to operate a high hazard facility like this, we brought in some people who had extensive experience either in the Navy nuclear program or the civilian nuclear program," explains Mann. "The idea was to bring those individuals in and assign them to facilities to help instill the new processes, the policies, to help the building managers train the workers in the new way of doing business."

Informed that a mentor report on Building 771, the main plutonium operations building throughout much of the plant's history, found numerous safety deficiencies related to neglected maintenance, Mann is untroubled. Mentor reports are, of course, only opinions, he notes--opinions that come from men whose standards tend to be inappropriately high for Rocky Flats. He says he isn't disturbed by senior mentor F.B. Lord's description of "the overall, steady deterioration of the building and its inner systems," including "the basic safety envelope systems."

"I will tell you that every building on this plant site has sufficient maintenance money in it to maintain it in a safe condition," Mann replies. Neither is he ruffled by Lord's concerns about aging tanks and piping systems that hold corrosive liquids laden with plutonium. Arguing for preventive maintenance, Lord's report invokes "the old Fram oil-filter commercial: `You can pay me now or pay me later.'"

The government and EG&G have taken great pains to install procedures designed to improve plant safety. But many workers say those bureaucratic measures do little to address the true hazards at Rocky Flats.

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