Hot Target

The Rocky Flats Web site is dark -- but terrorists may already have a blueprint for the former nukes plant.

Jeff Peters was getting ready to drive his daughter, Heather, to class at the University of Colorado on September 11 when he turned on the television and saw the World Trade Center's north tower in flames.

"I said, 'Heather, we're being attacked,'" he remembers, "and she said, 'How do you know it wasn't an accident?' and I said, 'Because any pilot who had to ditch his plane would have ditched it into the river, not the World Trade Center.'" A minute later, as Peters was leaning over to put on his shoes, Heather told him about the second plane.

"And that's when I knew for sure," Peters says.

The thought of a terrorist attack on United States soil was terrifying to Peters, perhaps more terrifying than it was to most Americans, because for six years, he was in charge of the security force at Rocky Flats. In that position, he'd been privy to information about just how vulnerable the former nuclear-weapons plant is to terrorism. And he believes that if an educated group of terrorists -- well trained and well funded, like the nineteen men who carried out the September attacks -- set their minds on penetrating Rocky Flats, the security force there would be overwhelmed. If those terrorists were able to set fire to the roughly ten tons of weapons-grade plutonium that is warehoused in one of the buildings on the site, either from the inside or with a truck bomb or an airplane, the results would be devastating. Not just in Denver, but across the country.

Despite recent assurances from the U.S. Department of Energy that Rocky Flats is entirely safe, Peters is concerned that the DOE is spending less on security and has fewer guards on-site than ever before.

"After September 11 and seeing how many bad guys they brought to the table," he says, "if they brought that many guys willing to give up their lives to any nuclear site, you might as well put your radiation suits on."

Since the mid-'90s, Peters and two other Rocky Flats whistleblowers -- Mark Graf and David Ridenour -- have been trying to warn the public about lax security at the site and misrepresentations by the DOE; Kaiser-Hill, the company overseeing the Rocky Flats cleanup; and Wackenhut Services Incorporated, the outfit in charge of protecting the facility and its deadly radioactive material. Although their efforts attracted media attention and inspired congressional hearings and a number of inter-agency investigations, the men were harassed, retaliated against and ultimately ignored.

On September 27, only sixteen days after the World Trade Center attacks, U.S. District Judge Walker Miller dismissed a lawsuit that Peters, Graf and Ridenour had filed in Denver in 1997, charging Kaiser-Hill, Wackenhut and EG&G Rocky Flats, a former operator of the plant, with failing to properly safeguard Rocky Flats since 1990. The suit, which was filed under the False Claims Act, a federal statute that allows the U.S. government or a private individual to sue a person or company that knowingly defrauds the government, alleged that the private contractors lied to the DOE in order to meet the agency's cleanup timeline and get paid.

In their suit, the whistleblowers charged that the companies billed the DOE for training that was never completed, filed false reports showing that new alarm and communication systems had been properly installed, and misrepresented the security team's ability to defend the site. They demanded that the contractors repay the DOE $400 million plus damages; they also asked to be paid a portion of the proceeds from any settlement or verdict.

The suit was sealed for two years while the DOE investigated the complaints. Finally, in December 1999, it was updated and released to the public. But in August 2000, the DOE -- which had been named a victim in the suit -- filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that if the case went forward, it would be harmful to national security and delay the final cleanup and closure of Rocky Flats, which is scheduled for 2006.

A year later, on August 7, without discussing the merits of the case itself, U.S Magistrate Judge Patricia Coan ruled that the DOE had proven that if the case were allowed to continue, it would indeed jeopardize national security and delay the cleanup of Rocky Flats. Judge Miller concurred six weeks later.

The whistleblowers' lawyer, Phyllis Brown, appealed that ruling on October 31 to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. "There's usually a panel of judges. The issue for them will be the dismissal, not the merits," Brown says. "If we pass that, it will be back to the [federal] district court."

Which is fine with the whistleblowers; they've been fighting too long to give up now.

In 1990, the DOE hired Wackenhut to provide security at Rocky Flats, which had been raided the year before by the FBI and was no longer producing plutonium triggers for bombs. Wackenhut hired Peters to command the unified security force at the site. But Peters soon started complaining to his supervisors that the company wasn't protecting the radioactive material as the DOE had directed it to do. Finally in 1995, Peters and Graf, an alarm-station supervisor at Rocky Flats, wrote two letters to then-Colorado congressman David Skaggs, detailing their concerns. As a result of those letters, the DOE ultimately investigated Rocky Flats. In the meantime, however, Wackenhut reassigned Peters, stripped him of his special clearance, and forced him to undergo a psychological review. Peters complained, but he eventually agreed to resign his post in return for a cash settlement.

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