MORE

Bombs Away!

Rocky Flats workers manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that protruded from airtight glove boxes.

In the spring of 1951, engineering consultants for the Atomic Energy Commission crisscrossed the West, discreetly scoping out potential locations for a new government plant. Their mission was urgent and of the utmost secrecy; not even the governors of the states where the sprawling facility might be located had been informed of the search.

The new plant, code-named Project Apple, had the usual requirements of any new industry: ample land that could be acquired with relative ease, a good transportation system, a dependable utility company, a moderate climate and a stable workforce. Those last two requirements were particularly important. The plant would have miles of pipes and ventilation ducts that would suction air out of rooms many times a day, and the plant managers didn't want to locate in a climate where air conditioning would be necessary. In addition, prospective employees would have to undergo background checks by the FBI in order to obtain the Q clearances needed before they could even set foot inside the plant. The clearances were expensive and time-consuming, and plant officials, already with an eye toward the bottom line, viewed a high turnover rate as "extremely undesirable."

The Atomic Energy Commission, the omnipotent federal agency that had come into existence after the war, wanted the plant to be located somewhere west of the Mississippi River, east of Utah, and no further south than the Texas Panhandle. The selection team narrowed the potential sites to nine cities, then winnowed down the list again, coming up with three possible contenders, all of which happened to be in Colorado: Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. Pueblo was jettisoned because of its inaccessibility, and Colorado Springs was eliminated because of its small utility company. That left Denver, which, in the group's opinion, outstripped all the other cities in terms of its "attractive environs and recreational opportunities."

Once Denver had been selected, AEC bureaucrats and officials from Dow Chemical Company, the contractor selected to manage the new plant, checked into the Olin Hotel at 1420 Logan Street. Over the next few days, they scouted out seven sites in the Denver area, including one near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, another near Gunbarrel Hill in Boulder County and a third near Marston Lake.

When their heavy sedans rumbled up a lonely back road and stopped on top of a barren plateau, they knew they had found the perfect location. The windswept expanse was desolate and foreboding, seemingly devoid of all life except the wind, which ruffled their topcoats and carried a whiff of evergreens and fresh snow. Rocks and boulders were scattered across the plateau, and three small streams trickled down through the brown surface toward the valley below. The low-slung skyline of Denver, already a burgeoning metropolis of 415,000 people, was just visible through the haze.

On that treeless mesa, aptly named Rocky Flats, the federal government decided to build Project Apple, a playful name given to a deadly serious business. For the new plant would produce nothing resembling apples. It would make plutonium pits: spherical cores that were heavier than lead, more toxic than arsenic and capable of producing an unimaginable explosion.

In a formerly secret report, the AEC's engineering consultants advised the commission that Rocky Flats land was cheap and could be obtained with the least amount of trouble. It was also "well removed from any residential area," yet still within driving distance of Denver, Boulder and Golden, "over highways with very little commuting traffic."

The consultants also analyzed the wind patterns and concluded that the prevailing winds were from the south. That was another fortuitous development. Rocky Flats would be processing hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals, including plutonium, known at that time to be one of the most carcinogenic materials on earth. Given the mission, businessmen and government officials realized that the plant should not be located "leeward of any densely populated area." But there was one problem: The consultants had obtained their information from data at Stapleton Airport, which was located some twenty miles east of Rocky Flats. And the data was wrong.

The prevailing winds from Rocky Flats blow east and southeast toward Denver and its northern suburbs. Descending the eastern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and whipping across the rock-strewn plateau, the wind scours up debris, dust and contaminants and flings them toward Denver. "Such information," writes Len Ackland, a professor and journalist at the University of Colorado in Boulder whose book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, was published last fall, "should have eliminated Rocky Flats as a potential nuclear weapons plant site."

But the arms race was on, and the way the wind blew was of little importance to war planners. Fearful that the Soviet Union might be the first to build a workable hydrogen bomb, military leaders were in a hurry to build a new facility that could make plutonium pits, some of which would be used as "triggers" to ignite hydrogen bombs, apocalyptic weapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people at once. In their haste, the AEC and Dow Chemical Company had made a potentially deadly error even before the first shovelful of dirt had been turned. But it would not be the first -- or the last -- mistake that plant officials were to make over the next four decades.

 

All through the '50s and '60s, fires, accidents, explosions and over-exposures occurred at Rocky Flats -- but the plant's activities remained largely secret. Decades would pass before Colorado and the rest of the nation learned of Chernobyl-like disasters and the vast contamination. While Denver boomed and went broke and boomed again, bringing a ring of suburban homes ever closer to the barbed-wire fence at Rocky Flats, the plant operated around the clock, forging new plutonium pits in its drab buildings.

Following a catastrophic fire in 1969, activists started pressuring the government to release more information about the plant. Scientists who were independent of the godlike AEC began taking their own soil samples and found plutonium levels that were more than 200 times what is normally found in Colorado. Demonstrators protested outside the gates at Rocky Flats in the early '70s, lawyers representing workers and nearby homeowners filed multiple lawsuits in the '80s, and the FBI raided the plant in 1989. After the raid, everything came to a screeching halt. Plutonium sat in glove boxes, in undrained tanks, in storage cans. The plant and its employees drifted from day to day. Finally, during his State of the Union address in January 1992, President George Bush announced that he was canceling the W-88 warhead, which was the last weapon on the Rocky Flats production line. The plant's Cold War mission was officially over.

But the staggering environmental pollution left by those years has breathed new life into the aging facility. Employees in the spring of this year numbered 4,757, just 500 less than the 5,243 workers on hand at the time of the FBI raid. Today the plant's mission is mopping up, a dreary but nevertheless monumental task. The pits and the plutonium residues are being stabilized and hauled off; the buildings are being demolished; and the plant is in the process of cleaning up the trenches, burial mounds, ponds and landfills where both radioactive and hazardous wastes were dumped. For the second time in fifty years, Rocky Flats is blazing new ground. Never before in U.S. history has a nuclear-weapons plant been dismantled, brick by contaminated brick.

In essence, Rocky Flats was a huge machine shop where radioactive metals such as plutonium and enriched uranium were shaped into smooth cores that were inserted into warheads. After the fissionable material in a core began to "decay," the weapon was dismantled and the core sent back to Rocky Flats, where it was crushed, chemically stripped of contaminants, rolled, drilled and milled into a shiny new center. Over the decades, hundreds of tons of plutonium -- the deadly heart of nearly every nuclear weapon ever deployed by the United States -- have cycled through the plant.

Furnaces, tool and dye shops, assembly lines, research laboratories, cafeterias, showers and locker rooms were built at the site. Thousands of barrels of oil and solvents were used. More than 1,500 chemicals, many of which can cause cancer, liver damage and nerve disorders, were employed in the manufacturing process. Contaminated clothing, paper wipes, tools, wood pallets and other assorted equipment were routinely trucked to landfills, dumped into trenches or burned in pits.

The amount of waste -- and the type of waste -- created by the plant was staggering. Yet for decades, Rocky Flats managers had no coherent plan to deal with the toxic leftovers. They stacked barrels in hallways, then moved them outside to loading docks and concrete slabs, and from there to the fields, where the noxious-smelling liquids leaked into the soil and the groundwater. In the mid-'90s, Rocky Flats was deemed the most contaminated in the Department of Energy's network of decrepit facilities. Radioactive plutonium and americium are scattered throughout the soil. Toxic plumes of groundwater encompassing more than 300 acres sprawl beneath the ground.

Despite this ignominious legacy, the Department of Energy and its current contractor, Kaiser-Hill, have Rocky Flats on a fast track to closure. By 2006, they intend to clean up the entire site, which includes some 394 acres in what's known as the industrial area and 5,861 acres of surrounding land. Nearly 700 buildings will be demolished, multiple plumes of contaminated groundwater will be remediated, and hundreds of tons of toxic earth will be hauled off.

 

Although Rocky Flats will never be completely free of radioactive contaminants, plant officials and regulators contend that the air, soil and water will be ostensibly clean enough for occasional open-space users. Activists, however, argue that the cleanup standards should be tightened -- or else the government is condemning a small percentage of future Coloradans to a painful death from cancer.

With developers hungrily eyeing the wide swath of open land and the noose of homes surrounding Rocky Flats growing ever tighter, the mop-up continues. In six short years, plant officials vow, there will be no more guard towers, no barbed-wire fences. Just sky and rocks and wind, blowing like it did in 1951.

By the spring of 1952, Rocky Flats was up and running. But with miles of ventilation ducts, multiple filter systems and air locks, the plant was a challenge to build, and the entire complex wasn't really complete until 1954. Three major structures, hulking lumps of concrete that seemed more bunker than building, were erected to handle the production work; they would remain in almost continuous use for the next forty years.

Building A, or 444, handled depleted uranium and, later, beryllium. These two materials were wrapped around the pits because they reflect neutrons and would hold the fissioning center of a bomb together for an extra moment before it blew itself apart, thereby increasing the yield. Depleted uranium, which is essentially uranium in which the fissionable isotope has been extracted, can cause kidney damage and other ailments. Beryllium, a very hard but light metal, is not radioactive but is extremely toxic to some people and can cause lung scarring and death.

Building B, or 881, was a cavernous three-story building containing nearly 250,000 square feet of space. Located mostly below ground, Building B manufactured bomb cores from enriched uranium. By 1964, most of the enriched-uranium work had been moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The building continued to be used for other purposes, despite this acknowledgment from the DOE in a 1994 document: "There are some areas in the building where residual enriched uranium is still present, primarily in ventilation ducts and conduits."

Building C, or 771, was the primary plutonium production facility. This was the warm red heart of the plant, a twisting, turning maze of hallways and rooms that gave workers a queasy, uneasy feeling as soon as they crossed the threshold. They called it "the hellhole." Burrowed into a hillside, with concrete walls that were six and seven feet thick, the building was modeled after the plutonium-processing facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the world's first atomic bomb was perfected. Building C had an intricate ventilation system designed to prevent the flow of contaminants: Fresh air was pumped into "cold" areas, such as offices, bathrooms and locker rooms, then recycled into "intermediate areas" -- corridors and laboratories -- and finally introduced into "hot" production areas.

Following a serious fire in 1957, the production work was transferred to two adjoining buildings known as 776 and 777. But Building C continued to be used for plutonium recovery operations -- chemically removing the radioactive metal from liquids, wastes and chips and returning it to its pure form. In the 1994 document, the DOE acknowledged that Building C was also seriously contaminated, containing "significant plutonium buildup in the process area and exhaust ducts."

Presiding over each of the three production buildings was a "building czar" who ran the daily operations with an iron fist. The overlord, Dow Chemical, was an equally tough master that was tightly disciplined and loath to admit mistakes. Security was so tight that workers had two badges: one for Rocky Flats as a whole, another for the building in which they worked. Employees could talk only with the people with whom they worked and were not allowed to socialize with people who worked in other buildings.

Even scientists assigned to oversee health and safety matters were bound by the same restrictions, recalled Edward Putzier, one of the plant's first health physicists. "The four plants were very much isolated security-wise," he wrote in 1982, on the eve of his retirement. "Security was extremely tight and unless one had absolute official need to go into a building other than his assigned building, he just could not get there without high-level authorization."

Putzier, who is now retired and still living in the Denver area, had read about the new Rocky Flats plant in 1951 while he was thumbing through an issue of Nucleonics. Then a young graduate student in the health physics department at the University of Rochester, Putzier had grown tired of Rochester's harsh climate, and he fired off an application to Dow Chemical. He reported for work on June 11, 1952. Two days later he was dispatched to Los Alamos, where he underwent "further training and indoctrination."

 

In his 1982 paper, Putzier said security compartmentalization was so restrictive that even the office people in Building C were not allowed into the production areas. "This was controlled," he wrote, "by having an inside guard post and an outside guard post with a complete badge exchange at both places."

With the Cold War deepening and a fear of communism on the rise, Rocky Flats adopted many other secrecy precautions that had been enacted during the Manhattan Project, the Army's secret wartime effort to build the world's first atomic bomb. During the war, the very existence of plutonium was classified. The radioactive material was often referred to as the "product," or "49," a code taken from the last digits of plutonium's atomic weight and number.

At Rocky Flats, workers continued to refer to plutonium as the "product" or, simply, "X." So complete was the indoctrination that many retired workers still use the "coded language of the nuclear workplace," says Dorothy Ciarlo, who is conducting oral histories of former Rocky Flats workers for the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History in Boulder.

"This coded language is bland and imprecise. I notice that I myself have slipped into it with surprising ease," she wrote in a recent paper. "Thus, the word 'materials' always refers to dangerous, expensive and radioactive materials such as uranium, plutonium, tritium, and americium. The process of manufacturing the plutonium pit, the part of the nuclear weapon that gives it its unbelievably destructive capability, is called 'production' and the pit is the 'product.' 'Hot' means radioactive and 'spill' always refers to a leak or a pool of fluid that is plutonium-contaminated."

Despite the intimidating security restrictions, wages were good -- $2.31 an hour in the '50s -- and the plant had no trouble attracting young, healthy workers. Out-of-work miners, farmers and construction workers applied for jobs and willingly underwent the rigorous FBI checks that often took nearly a year to complete. For some, the mantle of security only enhanced the feeling that they were doing something worthwhile for their country.

"We took pride in what we were doing," retiree Richard Franchini said in his oral history. "Now, a lot of people have a hard time understanding that. They say, 'Yeah, but you made a bomb,' and it's true. But we made the best bomb, and that's why we took pride in that. We knew that as long as we had the best bomb, nobody would drop one on us."

Compared to the other wretched sites in the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear-weapons complex, Rocky Flats was heaven. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where most of the enriched uranium was being made, was a stifling swamp of muddy streets and makeshift government housing. And Hanford, Washington, where plutonium was produced in battleship-sized reactors, was even worse, a ramshackle operation in the middle of nowhere that was plagued by howling windstorms and labor disputes.

In 1952, Hanford began sending the first grams of plutonium to Rocky Flats. The syrupy green liquid was poured into stainless-steel flasks that were placed inside cylindrical carrying cases that resembled miniature telephone-cable spools. (The shape of the container was extremely important; in certain configurations, the plutonium molecules could begin fissioning madly, setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction. )

Using vacuum pumps, the radioactive substance was transferred to tall, narrow vessels. Then the material was shuttled from work station to work station and eventually converted into buttons, which weighed anywhere from 300 grams to two kilograms.

Although plutonium was still a relatively new substance, much had been learned about its chemical and physical properties since its discovery in 1941. By the time Rocky Flats began operating, scientists knew that one microgram, a millionth of a gram, could produce a fatal cancer. The radioactive material is particularly hazardous if breathed into the lungs, where it emits small energetic particles, called alpha particles, that can kill cells or cause them to mutate and trigger the runaway growth known as cancer. Scientists also were aware of the fact that small chips and shavings of plutonium are extremely pyrophoric -- that is, they burn easily in the presence of oxygen. They also realized that plutonium has a 24,000-year half-life, which means that every 24,000 years, half of a given amount of plutonium will decay or shed some energy, gradually transforming itself into a non-radioactive material. Put another way, it takes 240,000 years for plutonium to completely lose its radioactivity.

The production areas looked like a cross between surgical suites and Ford assembly lines. Employees wore white booties, caps and overalls at their work stations and in highly contaminated environments clamped half-masks over their faces. No one actually touched plutonium -- which, in large enough quantities, emits the warmth of a small animal -- with their bare hands. Instead they relied on glove boxes, airtight boxes from which long, lead-lined gloves protruded. Looking through Plexiglas windows, the workers would slip their hands into gloves and manipulate the plutonium lying within the box. The dust and fumes were sucked out of the glove boxes and recycled through several filter systems before being discharged to the outside air.

 

Over time, an AEC official once acknowledged, the interior surfaces of the glove boxes became coated with radioactive materials, creating a condition called a "neutron flux," which significantly increased the overall doses workers were receiving. The highly corrosive acids used in the manufacturing process also caused the glove boxes to leak. "We had some pretty huge spills," remembered Willie Warling Jr., a monitor at the plant for many years. "Leaks mostly in the boxes. The boxes were old, and everything was run with acids, and these acids eat through the lines, they eat through the valves, they eat through the gaskets, you know, and in those years, production was first, that was number one. So we had those bad spills."

All too frequently, the insides of the gloves also became contaminated. They grew rotten and stiff with age, ragged and torn from the corrosive chemicals. Sometimes they were punctured with instruments or by slivers of plutonium. "If we happened to get a hole in the glove or something, you didn't pull your hands out of the glove and track it around. You stayed there and you hollered for somebody to put your respirator on and go get a monitor," former worker James De Andrea recalled. "One time I was working, my glove started smoking. And the oil or whatever was burning off, and it was starting to come out of the box with this fire. Somebody must have called the fireman -- he comes in, pulls the glove right off the box! That would have contaminated the whole building! I was right there, and he didn't have no respirator on; he wasn't trained for the area then. I had my respirator on, so I just went after it like I was going after a fumble -- took the whole glove, stuck it on the box, left my arm in the box, and I had him call for help and get a monitor over there. And fortunately, the contamination stayed right where I was."

According to Jim Kelly, a respected union leader at the plant for many decades, safety was not a high priority on Dow Chemical's list. The half-mask respirators fit so poorly that he remembers seeing the corners of workers' mouths. "Safety was big talk only," he says. "It was production first; everything else was third, fourth and fifth." An almost macho attitude pervaded the workplace, he adds. "If anybody brought up a safety issue, it was suggested that you ought to find someplace else to work where you wouldn't be so scared."

Kelly, the son of a Wyoming coal miner, was a tireless advocate of the working man and continually brought his concerns to management. To muzzle him or other union members, he says, plant officials ordered them to clean the "snakepit," a room filled with leaking, contaminated pumps, or the "horseshoe," an area behind some glove boxes that was equally hot. When showering did not adequately wash off the contamination, workers were sent to "Hot Water Johnny," a man who scrubbed their bodies with bleach until their skin was raw and bleeding.

Willie Warling, the monitor, remembered that Dow supervisors often ordered workers to remain in areas where the contamination was high. "They knew it was bad for you," he said in his oral history. "They made us go back in there and stand by them boxes." When "bigshots" from the Pentagon or the AEC came for a tour, workers were ordered to quickly scrub down contaminated areas and take down signs warning that only respirators should be worn. "When the tours come along, they wanted to make it look nice and clean -- you know, they'd take the signs down," he recalled.

As the men toiled at the glove boxes, they listened apprehensively for the alarms. An ear-splitting horn that sounded like an eighteen-wheeler barreling down the highway signaled a sudden burst of gamma radiation; a clanging bong indicated a fire; a warbling, birdlike sound registered the presence of alpha radiation. Sometimes a voice simply crackled over the loudspeaker, informing workers: "There is a fire in the box. People in seven six wear respirators."

When the alarms went off, the men knew the area was already contaminated and there was little they could do except race for the nearest exit. "You knew when you heard the alarm, it was something that had already happened," Kelly remembers. "Everybody knew that one snootful is all you needed, and you're through, your life is changed forever...It was hard to draw a line between being afraid of something which is sometimes dangerous and respecting something enough that your safety was not compromised."

 

Wounds contaminated with plutonium were often excised to keep the material from getting into the bloodstream. (Manhattan Project scientists had been so concerned about cuts and punctures that they once considered amputating the entire hand.) One worker at Rocky Flats underwent plastic surgery after a processing vessel exploded, sending shards of plutonium-contaminated glass and metal into his face. To track the radioactivity, doctors made a plaster of Paris cast of the man's face, punching holes where they thought the wounds were located. Then, with an eyebrow pencil, they pinpointed the exact location of the lacerations and copied them onto the plaster face. Wrote Edward Putzier, "This proved to be a very valuable method to follow the [plutonium] activity, and the individual eventually did have some excision done on his face by a plastic surgeon. A small wound near his eye was left untouched because of the proximity to the eye, and we were able to follow along by using this mask for quite some period to determine what kind of counts, if any, we were getting." (A 'count' reflects the emission of a ray or particle from a radioactive substance.)

In 1955, just a year after the plant was fully operational, the Atomic Energy Commission decided to change its nuclear-weapons design. Instead of solid cores, it wanted to make hollow pits that were lighter and more powerful and used more plutonium. "The shift to hollow pits would be the most significant nuclear-weapons design change ever to affect Rocky Flats," wrote Len Ackland in his book.

To accommodate the new weapons design, Rocky Flats began construction on two buildings, 776 and 777. Even before these two adjoining structures were completed, however, Dow officials decided to start making some of the hollow pits in Building C. Not only was more plutonium in circulation, but the plutonium itself was being handled more frequently as it was rolled, shaped and machined to rigorous specifications. Soon more workers were getting zapped with bigger doses.

In one candid passage, Putzier chronicled the alarming increases and Dow's cavalier response: "We had during the late 1950s and into the middle 1960s a general increasing trend in external radiation exposure levels," he wrote. "The attitude toward such exposures up to this point in time by the manufacturing people seemed to be that this was part of the business and part of the business was that once in a while we would have to write reports for over-exposures and, secondly, that there were sufficient safety factors built into radiation standards so that we were not jeopardizing anybody's health by occasional over-exposure."

The Dow managers could have reduced the amount of plutonium in the production areas or cut back on production in order to lower the radiation doses that workers were receiving. Instead they decided to increase the shielding surrounding the glove boxes and other areas where plutonium was stored. Ironically, the shielding -- made of a type of Plexiglas that plant officials knew was flammable -- only served to fan the flames of a disastrous fire.

At 10:10 p.m. on September 11, 1957, watchmen Earl Irvin and R.D. Anderson were strolling through Room 179 of Building C when they smelled a strange odor similar to burning rubber. The two men hurried next door, to Room 180, where machining and inspection of plutonium parts destined for Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore lab were done. There they saw flames eighteen inches high shooting from a glove box. Inside were plutonium "skulls," or massive casting residues. The skulls were burning, a pair of neoprene gloves had all but melted, and the glass was crumbling.

The men immediately called the on-site fire department. Two minutes later, Lieutenant V.F. Eminger and Pumper No. 2 arrived. While one of the watchmen was helping Eminger into protective gear -- a bunker coat, asbestos gloves, booties and a Chemox mask -- Robert Vandegrift, the shift supervisor, met him at the door of Room 180 and forbade him to enter. Eminger's eyes widened with surprise, and he glanced toward the fire. "As I stood there, the fire gained great momentum in the right corner of the room near the lathe," he wrote in a statement appended to a bulky report on the 1957 fire, which remained classified for nearly forty years.

Vandegrift, as it turned out, was apparently furious that the two watchmen had called the fire department before notifying him. "You should have called me first, and it would be up to me to call the fire department," he yelled at one of the watchmen. Then he yanked a respirator onto his face and told the lieutenant to follow him into the burning room. The heat was so intense that they could advance only a few feet before they had to fire their canisters of carbon dioxide into the flames. The carbon dioxide did nothing to quench the blaze, however, and the men backed out of the room and held a "hurried council" in the hallway. While they huddled, I.B. Venable, the building superintendent, gave orders by telephone to turn the exhaust fans on high speed. Venable wanted to protect the people fighting the blaze, but the well-intended gesture only helped fuel the flames.

 

As the conflagration worsened, plant officials were confronted with a terrifying choice: Should they unroll the water hoses? It was the logical solution, but one freighted with danger. When plutonium and water are mixed together, they can go critical -- begin fissioning and cause a nuclear explosion. But the flames were spreading toward the air ducts, and there was nothing else to do. Vandegrift ordered the firemen to spray water on the ceiling and floors. The temperature dropped immediately, and for a minute everyone thought the worst was over.

Suddenly there was an explosion. Vandegrift and Eminger were blown back through the doors. The blast apparently had been triggered by unvented gases emitted by the burning materials in the glove boxes. "The explosion," wrote another witness, "had the characteristics that would be noted if one threw a match into gasoline." Fortunately, no one was hurt.

A minute later the power went out and the fans stopped turning. But the fire was still going strong. The blaze roared through the ventilation ducts and finally reached a floor-to-ceiling bank of filters on the second floor. This bank of filters consisted of 620 paper filters that were each two feet high and two feet wide. They had never been changed since the building had begun operating, and untold grams of plutonium had accumulated on their surfaces. The filters burned furiously, enveloping the area in a thick, impenetrable smoke. At 10:39 p.m., a firefighter standing outside saw a column of smoke, eighty to a hundred feet high and "very dark in color" pouring from the stack.

Vandegrift and Eminger ran outside, put on new coveralls and new Chemox masks and returned to the building. Other firefighters, clad in bulky coats and respirators, rushed to the scene. Finally, at 2 a.m., some five hours later, the fire was brought under control. But it wasn't until 11:28 that morning that the flames were doused for good.

The wind had been kittenish and unpredictable during the fire, blowing in every direction before finally stabilizing in a southwesterly flow at about 8 a.m. Site monitors detected an alarming increase of short-lived radioactivity about mid-morning. The people in buildings 776 and 777 were ordered to put on respirators. Plant managers considered sending workers home, but decided against it because they thought the "psychic damage would be greater than the real harm." Health officials swabbed the noses and throats of 88 workers and also took three fecal samples, two blood samples and one urine sample. All showed "positive indications" of plutonium exposure.

In the official account of the fire, which was not released to the public until February 24, 1993, plant officials pointed out several reasons for the fire's severity: The room was too crowded and filled with too much plutonium; the fire detection system had been intentionally disabled; the glove boxes and filters had been constructed from materials that Dow Chemical knew were flammable.

But there was one lingering question that the classified report neatly sidestepped: How much plutonium was spewed into the surrounding countryside? With not one whit of evidence, T.S. Chapman, director of the plant's health physics and medical department, declared, "For all practical purposes, the plutonium contamination resulting from the fire is negligible."

But attorneys for Marcus Church, a nearby rancher who had reluctantly sold the AEC some of the original land upon which the plant was located, didn't believe it. Church had run into legal difficulties when he had tried to sell off other parcels to a developer. So he hired a battery of lawyers and scientists to investigate Rocky Flats and filed a lawsuit in 1975 against the government and Dow Chemical, alleging they had defiled his land with plutonium and numerous other toxins. It was a groundbreaking investigation and the first sustained effort to peel back the wall of secrecy that had surrounded the plant for many years. Using subpoena power and the Freedom of Information Act, the Church team obtained memos, internal reports, charts and maps that revealed the plant's dangerous and reckless activities. Many of those activities were subsequently outlined in a 500-page, pre-trial statement.

 

Despite the burning filters and the thick column of black smoke chugging from the stack, plant officials estimated that less than a gram of plutonium was released to the environment during the 1957 fire. But attorneys representing Church, sifting through technical reports and data describing the plutonium-laden filters, calculated that as much as fourteen kilograms could have escaped. Others put the release somewhere in between. Eventually, Rocky Flats officials were forced to acknowledge in interrogatories filed with the court that they had "no known data or information tending to confirm or deny the truth of the estimate of the one gram value."

After the fire, much of the plutonium work was moved into adjoining buildings, 776-777. This complex, which housed foundry, assembly and inspection operations, was so vast that yellow arrows had been painted on the floors so visitors could find their way out.

At the foundry, plutonium was forged into ingots, which could weigh roughly between fifteen and eighteen pounds. The feed material came from several sources: virgin plutonium from Hanford or Savannah River, another production facility in South Carolina; and "recycled" plutonium from aging warheads in the stockpile. The so-called site returns were shipped back to Rocky Flats every eight years or so when a small percentage of the plutonium molecules within the core decayed into americium, a "daughter" product that was extremely radioactive. Using a chemical process, the americium was separated from the plutonium. For a few years, Rocky Flats officials were able to resell the americium, which was used in smoke alarms and for various diagnostic procedures, but the radioactive material was consigned to the trash heap when demand dropped off in the '70s.

After the plutonium was forged, it was sent to the fabrication department where the metal was pressed, cut, drilled and milled into the hollow hemispheres. Leftover pieces were then placed in chip cans and returned to the foundry, where the loose shards were pressed into briquettes -- hamburger-sized patties weighing a little over three pounds.

The completed plutonium components then went to an assembly department for inspection, final cleaning and drilling, and packaging. The assembly department also had the onerous and dangerous task of chopping up the plutonium cores taken from the old warheads and sending them back for reprocessing.

The completed cores were then shipped in specially designed railroad cars to the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas. At that facility, the core was surrounded with a layer of explosives and inserted into warheads that were deployed throughout the world.

The safety record was no better in the 776-777 complex than it was in Building C. Fires, explosions and accidents occurred frequently as Dow officials rushed to meet production schedules and collect their bonuses. Plutonium salts caught fire. Plutonium dust ignited. Plutonium chips, plutonium metals and plutonium-encrusted molds burst into flames. Incinerators exploded. Oils caught fire. Tanks burned. Lines ruptured. Furnaces blew up. Even radioactive sludge erupted in flames.

The workers soon became so inured to burning plutonium -- which glowed like charcoal briquettes -- that they simply dunked the material in oil or tossed it into a pan and let it burn itself out. "If it does happen, it is nothing to get excited about," a supervisor once told government officials. Radioactive debris collected in the corners of glove boxes and small crevices of machines. When workers finally got around to cleaning the 4 High Mill Pit, a milling machine that was big as a room, they found some 74 kilograms of sludge containing 13 kilograms of plutonium -- enough to make several nuclear weapons. The machine had been in operation for ten years and had never been cleaned.

The workers fared no better. They were cut, scraped, burned, scalded and exposed on untold occasions. In his 1982 paper, Putzier chronicled a few of the more serious incidents: In 1963, a fire in a filtrate recovery box exposes workers to significant amounts of plutonium and readings of 25,000 counts per minute; in 1964, a degreasing explosion in Building 776 contaminates numerous employees and results in "amputations"; in 1965, a blaze in a lathe coolant system exposes 400 workers to high concentrations of airborne plutonium.

Dow Chemical and the AEC, it seems, had learned nothing from the 1957 fire. The rooms were crammed with plutonium, and the workers were still receiving significant overexposures from gamma rays, beta rays and neutrons, all of which ricochet through human cells, tearing up the delicate latticework of chemical bonds. Rather than keep exposures as low as possible, one government document noted, Rocky Flats managers allowed employees to receive the maximum amounts set by the AEC. In 1966, 87 workers received in excess of five rem, and in 1967, 88 workers received doses exceeding the five-rem mark, a figure which represented 80 percent of all the overexposures in the entire U.S. weapons complex. Geiger counters stationed a foot from the glove boxes were recording as much as 1.6 millirem per hour from gamma radiation and 8.3 millirem per hour from fast neutrons. Hand exposures ranged anywhere from 20 to 50 roentgens, wrote Putzier.

 

Dow knew unequivocally that workers were being dangerously overexposed. But the company was trying to develop more efficient production methods in order to "reduce costs of plutonium," according to a government document.

Batch sizes were larger, ingots were bigger, and more plutonium was present on the production lines. "In effect, in a fully loaded state, the conveyor was running on an almost continuous basis and the material comprised a large number of sources of radiation contributing to the overall ambient radiation levels. This was a major source of the exposures to foundry and fabrication personnel," Putzier wrote.

Instead of slowing down production, Dow Chemical decided to add more Plexiglas and Benelex, a mud-colored plastic that was cheap and easy to install. In all, some 1,170,000 pounds of Plexiglas and Benelex were added to the glove boxes. While the extra shielding did cut down on exposures, the material made it impossible to see what was within the glove boxes or adequately clean the area. Incredibly, Dow officials proceeded with the installation of Benelex, despite the fact that one of their own engineers had warned that the material was "combustible."

The uncontrolled growth, off-the-cuff decisions and callous disregard for even the most modest of precautions paved the way for one of the worst fires in AEC history, a conflagration that came within a hair's breadth of contaminating hundreds of thousands of Denver residents with potentially lethal doses of plutonium.

The fire began on the afternoon of Sunday, May 11, 1969. It was Mother's Day, and only a few people were working. According to the official AEC accident report, the blaze began when a plutonium briquette in a storage can ignited, but Rowland Felt, one of the officials investigating the fire, now says the fire was actually ignited when some plutonium-contaminated rags caught fire.

At the time, thousands of pounds of plutonium were sitting on the conveyor lines or in storage areas waiting to be processed. In addition to the loosely pressed briquettes, there were slabs of plutonium metal thick as steaks, as well as partially hewn hemispheres that resembled derby hats. Throughout that Sunday morning, the briquettes smoldered and glowed. A security guard on his regular patrol thought the building seemed a little warm and heard some "popping" sounds, but didn't bother to report them. Meanwhile, the heat from the burning briquettes continued to build, finally tripping the building's heat detectors at 2:27 p.m.

Two minutes later, fire captain Wayne Jesser and three firefighters were on the scene. As soon as Jesser saw smoke, he went back outside, grabbed an airpack and called for help. During those few seconds, the fire gained momentum, shooting down a line of glove boxes. Jesser instructed one of his men to empty a canister of carbon dioxide at one end of the flames while he raced to the other end to corral the blaze. But once again, the carbon dioxide had no effect. The fire leapt to the overhead conveyors, then to the ceiling and the rolling mill in the center line. Soon the entire area was engulfed in thick black smoke. One of the firemen heard two loud reports, like rifle shots, and saw two large fireballs hurtling out of the blackness.

Although Jesser knew full well the dangers of pouring water on the plutonium, he had no choice but to order his men to roll out the hoses. Firefighter Howard Skov, who was right behind Jesser, later told fire investigators that he fell to his knees and prayed before obeying orders. "I will be honest with you," he said. "I got down on my hands and knees, because I looked in back of me to see which way I was going to go, because I...I didn't know what to expect, because I thought when I opened her, I thought she was going to go or I was going to go."

The firemen aimed the nozzles toward the ceiling so the water would not fall directly on the blaze. When stray drops fell onto the plutonium, the radioactive metal crackled and sizzled, erupting in a shower of sparks. Little by little, the firefighters were able to douse the blaze. But this was no ordinary fire. No sooner would they knock down the bright yellow flames in one spot than the fire would break out in another. The rancid smoke was horrible, unlike anything the firefighters had ever experienced; several later said the odor seemed to linger for days in their throats and mouths. On the second floor, firemen rolling out hoses heard a loud noise and felt the floor shaking.

 

With the airpacks strapped to their backs, the firefighters had a difficult time maneuvering in the crowded production area. They used up oxygen quickly and had to go back outside every twenty minutes to get new bottles. The smoke was so thick that they fought the blaze on instinct alone and found their way to exits by groping along the fire hoses or crawling on their hands and knees, following the yellow arrows that pointed the way out.

Conditions were equally chaotic outside. Within an hour, dozens of supervisors, radiation monitors and workers had been rounded up and ordered to the plant. A "hot" area was cordoned off for the firefighters. As the first wave of firemen stumbled out, sweating and exhausted, a phalanx of workers stripped off their clothing and suited them up again with freshly cleaned masks, hoods, double pairs of coveralls, booties, gloves and full bottles of oxygen. Some of the fireman grew alarmingly contaminated, with more than 100,000 counts per minute detected near noses and mouths. Nevertheless, the firefighters staggered back into the burning building four, five, six more times before being ordered to the medical department for decontamination and as many as three showers.

An hour or so after the fire began, the bystanders saw the first puff of smoke drifting out of the building. They donned respirators and watched as the whitish cloud rolled over the buildings and south toward the Denver-Boulder Turnpike. "Boy, it made our hearts sink," remembered one employee. "We saw this smoke coming out of there, and it was really bilious...I ran for my Volkswagen and I had the window down, and I figured if [the car] was going to get crapped up, I would just get it crapped up outside and I would roll my windows up and I didn't want my golf clubs to get hot..."

The roof of the burning building was a shockingly flimsy affair composed mostly of metal, plywood and Styrofoam. Parts of it had been damaged by wind and were being held in place by concrete blocks. Firefighters poured water on the surface and maintained an around-the-clock watch. The roof grew soft from the heat but managed to hold. Finally, at 8 p.m., the blaze was brought under control.

After the fire, the Atomic Energy Commission sent a raft of investigators, including Rowland Felt, to Rocky Flats to find out what had happened. The visitors toured the two devastated buildings, but they were limited in what they could see because the electricity wasn't working and the buildings were so contaminated they could remain inside for only a few minutes at a time. To reconstruct what had happened, Felt says, they relied heavily on photographs that they snapped on their brief forays.

For weeks the investigatory board interviewed supervisors, workers, fireman and plant officials. Eventually the findings and the transcripts of those interviews were assembled into multiple volumes and made public. (Many of them can be read at the DOE's public reading room at Front Range Community College.) Perhaps the most damning of their conclusions was that Rocky Flats, the nation's sole supplier of nuclear pits, did not even meet the minimum fire standards set by the Atomic Energy Commission. There were no overhead sprinklers or fire breaks, and the heat-detection system on the briquette cans had been rendered all but worthless when the extra shielding had been installed.

Toward the end of their investigation, the board summoned several of the plant's top officials and asked them what arrangements, if any, had been made with local authorities for protecting Denver and its suburban neighbors in the event of a future disaster. The plant manager and his sidekicks admitted they had made no plans for contacting neighboring fire departments, the sheriff's department, highway patrol or hospitals. In a remarkable display of hubris, they also added that they had no intention of developing any such plan in the future because such disasters simply couldn't occur at Rocky Flats. "I don't think we belong here if we could cause that type of an accident to our surrounding people. I think that's an impossibility," opined Charles Piltingsrud, Dow's manager of health physics.

But General E.B.Giller, head of the AEC's Division of Military Applications, was less sanguine when yanked before Congress several months later. If the fire had breached the roof, he admitted, "hundreds of square miles could be involved in radiation exposure and involve cleanup at an astronomical cost as well as creating a very intense reaction by the general public..."

 

The 1969 fire marked the end of Rocky Flat's ability to operate with complete impunity. Scientists, reporters and congressmen began asking questions; the horrifying implications of the blaze gradually dawned on the public. Some $22 million dollars' worth of plutonium had gone up in smoke, and the fire had caused $45 million in damages, making it one of the worst industrial accidents in AEC history. But, once again, Rocky Flats officials hemmed and hawed when asked to quantify how much of the plutonium had escaped into neighboring communities. The fact was, Church lawyers later told the court, "no one knows the amount of plutonium released in the 1969 fire."

When questioned by fire investigators, though, health physicist Charles Piltingsrud did admit that the Rocky Flats plant had released plenty of plutonium over the previous seventeen years. "One doesn't release or dare release the fact that we are, indeed, distributing plutonium throughout the environment," he confided. "If one took the average concentration per liter of air discharged from our plant, multiplied by the vast cubic feet or meters of air that we release, we release phenomenal amounts of plutonium."

But in the years to come, the plant spent millions of dollars denying that very thing.

Next week: Front Range residents finally learn the hazards of having a nuclear-weapons plant for a neighbor.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >