This Place Is a Dump!

Rocky Flats was designed to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. But what it really produced was waste -- lots of hazardous waste.

When the Atomic Energy Commission chose Rocky Flats as the site for its new nuclear-weapons plant, no one gave much thought to the wastes the plant would produce -- nor would they think much about those wastes in the decades to come.

In the beginning, the paper bags, cardboard boxes and drums filled with chemical and radioactive leftovers were simply pushed out the door and forgotten until someone somewhere higher up in the Atomic Energy Commission's hierarchy came up with a solution. Then Rocky Flats could wash its hands of the whole toxic mess. The plant didn't have time for such housekeeping chores, anyway. It had a vital mission: to produce nuclear pits, the smooth cores of plutonium or enriched uranium designed for the center of atomic bombs.

The commission knew that waste from its nuclear-weapons manufacturing was going to be an enormous problem. As early as 1947, government officials considered collecting it in garbage cans and burying it on federal property, storing it in vaults until radioactive decay had progressed sufficiently, dumping the material in the oceans, even shooting it into space by "interplanetary rockets." One thoughtful bureaucrat, writing in 1948, likened the vast quantities of radioactive liquids, solids and gases being spewed unchecked into the environment to "sins of emission" that, if left unabated, would someday pose the "gravest of problems."

Rocky Flats was designed to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. But what it really produced was waste -- lots of hazardous waste.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.
Rocky Flats was designed to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. But what it really produced was waste -- lots of hazardous waste.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.
Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.
Rocky Flats workers battled hazardous waste in protective suits and with glove boxes.
Part 1: Bombs Away!
Part 3: Hot Property

View a map detailing the contamination of Rocky Flats.

But the years passed, and no one at the AEC ever came up with a reasonable solution for the huge quantities of radioactive waste accumulating at Rocky Flats, as well as at other production facilities located around the country. Intent upon winning the arms race against the Soviet Union, the commission forgot the prescient warnings, and the waste grew, and grew, and grew.

"Despite the mountain of waste, it was only an afterthought. Nuclear-weapons production was the only priority," says Len Ackland, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, a comprehensive book on the plant published last fall.

Located just sixteen miles northwest of downtown Denver, Rocky Flats produced a dizzying assortment of both radioactive and chemical wastes during its forty years of operation. Thrown into trenches, burial mounds and burn pits scattered across the site were ripped coveralls, torn respirators, and punctured gloves and booties, along with obsolete or damaged tools and machinery, wooden pallets, crates, paper wipes, flattened drums, construction materials, ash, asphalt, soil, sewage sludge and contaminated water.

The plant used more than 1,500 chemicals in its manufacturing and cleanup processes. Oil kept lathes, drills and countless other pieces of machinery operating smoothly. Carbon tetrachloride was used like "a bucket of soap and water" to clean glove boxes, furnaces, machinery and even the plutonium metal itself.

Americium, beryllium, chloroform, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, thorium, tritium, benzene, cadmium, chromium, formaldehyde, lead, mercury and nickel were just part of the toxic brew of chemicals and metals used at Rocky Flats. Not only were the radioactive materials potential carcinogens, but many of the chemicals were also capable of producing cancer or other serious diseases that affected the liver, kidney, skin or central nervous system.

Rocky Flats officials soon discovered that radioactive contamination was a nightmare that could bring assembly lines to a halt, force the evacuation of entire buildings, and require days, even weeks, of cleanup work. Radioactivity was a cursed contagion that in some ways resembled a disease: You couldn't see, smell or taste it. The hot, ticking molecules wafted through buildings on air currents and occasionally found a permanent resting place in the soft, moist passageways of the nose, throat or lungs -- the most dangerous place of all.

Too often, wrote attorneys for Marcus Church, a rancher who in 1975 filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against Rocky Flats for contaminating his nearby property, the plant behaved like a miner out of the Old West, simply shoveling the waste down the mountain and forgetting about it. "Waste management was a low priority at Rocky Flats," wrote the Church team. "It was plagued by bad planning, stop-gap solutions and attempts to save a few dollars."

In an amazingly blunt statement, a Rocky Flats official once explained how Dow Chemical, the ironfisted contractor that ran the plant for decades, lurched from crisis to crisis, unable or unwilling to develop a coherent, well-thought-out plan for disposing of its wastes. "Waste management tends to be a low-priority project, because it is desirable to do as little as possible to get rid of any waste streams," he said. "Changes in the waste program are generally made necessary by changes in shipping or governmental regulations. It is difficult to predict what changes will be made, and this tends to develop a crisis-type situation in which effort is expended to solve a specific problem, followed by lack of activity until the next crisis."

By the early 1950s, the pits were rolling off the assembly lines and the contaminated garbage was stacking up in hallways, on building slabs, at loading docks. Initially, workers collected the debris in paper bags, then mixed the bags with concrete and poured the mixture into 55-gallon drums. Plant managers hoped to dump the barrels at sea -- a common-enough practice at the time. But when ocean dumping became politically unpalatable, Rocky Flats began storing cast-off materials in cardboard containers "pending final decision on the disposal of hot wastes," wrote Oliver Windahl, head of the plant's health-physics division, in 1952.

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