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.
Graf, on the other hand, continued to raise security concerns about Rocky Flats to federal agencies and even to CBS News, which aired a segment on the plant in late 1997. In early 1998, after Graf was placed on indefinite administrative leave as a result of the CBS program, he filed suit against Wackenhut, claiming that his rights under the DOE's whistleblower protection policies had been violated. Graf won that suit in December 1999 and was awarded damages and reinstatement. He still works at Rocky Flats.
Ridenour's whistleblowing career began in 1997, when he resigned as Rocky Flats security director after only three months on the job. In a letter to then-DOE secretary Federico Peña, Ridenour complained that he'd been told not to let security concerns interfere with the cleanup schedule. "Never before...in my career," he wrote, "have I ever been placed in a position where loyalty to my supervision and my requirement to protect the public health and safety were placed in direct opposition."
The three whistleblowers found support with Edward McCallum, the DOE's Washington, D.C.-based director of security. In 1997, Peters taped a phone conversation during which McCallum revealed his concern that terrorists could gain access to plutonium and cause a nuclear detonation at Rocky Flats. "I think the citizens, the employees at the plant and the citizens of Colorado are at extremely high risk for no reason," McCallum said during that call.
McCallum was eventually forced out of the DOE. He now works as a counter-terrorism expert for the Pentagon and testified on behalf of Ridenour, Graf and Peters during a June hearing in front of Judge Coan.
Over the years, the whistleblowers' cause has been taken up by two nonprofit government-watchdog groups: the Government Accountability Project, which helped Graf win his whistleblower case, and the Project on Government Oversight, which last month released a report compiling much of the case's history and adding new details. According to POGO, for instance, when security experts from the DOE and the Department of Justice went to Rocky Flats in March 2000 to conduct mock combat scenarios, they found that the "protective forces were shooting everyone in sight -- not just mock terrorists, but scientists, controllers wearing orange safety vests, and each other -- in a simulated test."
Patrick Etchart, spokesman for the DOE at Rocky Flats, takes issue with the POGO report, questioning why the organization released what he calls "old" information only a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. Although the DOE gave Wackenhut a marginal rating in 1996, the company has received "satisfactory" ratings since then, he notes. The Wackenhut security guards didn't do well in the mock combat because the expert team deviated from a previously agreed-upon scenario, he adds, pointing to a memo from Paul Golan, a deputy DOE manager at Rocky Flats. Nevertheless, Etchart acknowledges that Wackenhut security guards received more training following the exercise.
And while Wackenhut is now trying to hire a few more guards, Etchart defends the current level of staffing at Rocky Flats -- 160 armed guards, the lowest it has ever been -- as well as the level of security funding. "Could improvements be made? Could more be done? Of course. But we do need to strike a balance," he says. "Right now, Rocky Flats spends about $40 million a year on security. It has been, in the past, around $60 million. But we're on an accelerated schedule to complete cleanup and closure by 2006."
Since the terrorist attacks, guards at Rocky Flats have been checking employee badges 100 percent of the time and conducting random searches of employee vehicles; they've been searching every vendor and delivery truck and escorting them onto the site; and they've increased the number of patrols they make throughout the plant. Etchart says he's confident that the security team could handle any trouble until help arrived. "The security here is best described as encompassing multiple controls," he explains. "Yes, we have a highly trained and heavily armed security police officer force. But we also have engineered controls and electronic detection systems. We have hardened buildings, and the remaining buildings and the remaining materials are secured in hardened vaults."
But Peters, who is now self-employed and lives in Westminster with his wife and two children, believes the DOE has fooled itself, and the public, into believing Rocky Flats is safe.
"If Rocky Flats security is so tight, why do they have to upgrade it?" he asks. "They can't admit that those weaknesses exist. If they fix them, that's admitting that the problems that they swear don't exist really do exist."
On October 29, the DOE ordered Rocky Flats and other nuclear facilities around the country to take down their Web sites. "There was nothing classified or sensitive on there," Etchart says, "but after September 11, there is a greater concern about maps and photographs. They may want us to remove some of that. We will get it back up as soon as we can, because we recognize the importance of this Web site, especially in terms of cleanup and closure."
But much of that material and more is still available in the Rocky Flats Reading Room at Front Range Community College and at other government document repositories. Detailed maps of the site, complete with the location of guard towers, alarm buildings, electrical sources and culverts that run beneath security fences, are still on public view; so are descriptions of the plutonium and where it is located.
"I've said to myself, 'This is full-service, self-service terrorism here,'" Peters says about the library. "My only hope is that I don't think the terrorists have this information. If they did, they'd have done it already."
Among the documents Peters found in the reading room was a DOE Plutonium Vulnerability Assessment filed in August 1994, which contains a brief analysis of what could happen if a plane smashed into four of the buildings at Rocky Flats. "Although the likelihood of this event is low," it reads, "the consequences to the worker would be high in terms of personal injury; the consequences to the public and environment will be high." Elsewhere in the document, "high" is described as involving significant numbers of deaths. Although the four buildings no longer contain weapons-grade plutonium, as they did when the report was issued (it has been moved to Building 371, which is reinforced with concrete and rebar), the structures may still harbor enough dangerous material to be potentially deadly.
"And that is why we have been working very hard to remove all the plutonium from the site," responds Etchart. "That will ultimately eliminate the risk. Should we spend another $100 million when we almost have the material removed and when we are cleaning up and closing down and taking all the walls down?"
The DOE can't afford not to, Peters says. "We're going to lose a nuclear facility in this country before it's over," he predicts. "A New York type of event would be nothing compared to if they'd supplied the same well-trained terrorists to Rocky Flats. You and I would not be here. New York cost us $100 billion and 6,000 people, and our country can absorb that. I don't think this country could absorb Rocky Flats going up in a vapor cloud."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.