The Hot Zone

In the computer-generated photographs of Rocky Flats in the year 2006, the squat, proletarian buildings where plutonium was once shaped into deadly pits have been airbrushed away. The artist was wise to get rid of them: Those vast, concrete edifices were an anachronism, a Cold War artifact from a loony, paranoid era when Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table and threatened to bury us. Truth is, those buildings never belonged on that high mesa, with its uninterrupted views of the Platte River Valley and the Rocky Mountains.

Now, with the click of a mouse, an artist has returned Rocky Flats to the way it must have looked in 1951, when officials from Dow Chemical and the Atomic Energy Commission arrived in Denver and decided to build their doomsday plant here. Gone are the guard towers, the barbed-wire fence, the parking lots and automobiles. In their place are miles of wide-open prairie scratched with faint chalky lines where roads once existed.

Today, of course, Rocky Flats looks nothing like this pastoral, computer-generated image. But the current contractor, Kaiser-Hill, and its overseers at the Department of Energy are hell-bent on turning the idyllic image into reality in just six short years. It is an enormous challenge -- and one that is entirely self-imposed.


Read the first two installments in the Rocky Flats series:
Part 1: Bombs Away!
Part 2: This Place Is a Dump!

Nobody is standing over the DOE or Kaiser-Hill, threatening to fire them or cut their funding if the deadline is not met. In fact, many environmental activists think the headlong rush toward completing cleanup by 2006 means that corners will be cut and the site won't really be decontaminated when Kaiser-Hill closes shop and leaves town. And other doubting Thomases -- the General Accounting Office and accounting consultants Ernst & Young among them -- have already gone on record, saying the chances that Kaiser-Hill will meet the target date are slim. But company officials remain confident that they will make that deadline. A lot depends upon it -- not the least of which are incentive fees worth millions of dollars.

One more thing should be noted regarding the computerized image of Rocky Flats: It reveals nothing about what will remain behind at the former nuclear-weapons site once the cleanup is finished. Beneath the rolling hills, with their waving fields of native grasses, will be specially engineered caps, tanks, drains and monitoring wells that will have to remain viable for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Parts of the sewer system, as well as old process lines that pumped radioactive and hazardous chemicals from building to building, may be left in place. Also remaining behind could be the concrete foundations from some of the production buildings, their gaping holes filled in with so-called clean rubble from other demolished structures.

Under the current scenario put forth by the DOE and Kaiser-Hill, the soil at Rocky Flats would contain plutonium levels much higher than those found at other nuclear-weapons sites. Instead of the contaminated dirt being carted off, though, approximately 1,600 acres of the future site could be fenced off as "restricted open space," according to a conceptual land-use map recently prepared by Kaiser-Hill.

And that's not all. Beneath the restored landscape, multiple plumes of contaminated groundwater, like severed tributaries of the River Styx, would continue to ebb and flow. North Walnut Creek, South Walnut Creek and Woman Creek, the three streams that flow eastward across the site, would also contain levels of plutonium and other chemicals much higher than what Colorado once deemed acceptable.

"'Cleanup' doesn't mean completely clean in the Department of Energy lexicon," says Len Ackland, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who spent nearly a decade researching the plant's activities and recently published a book titled Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. "When government officials and the contractor talk about the plant being cleaned up by 2006, they don't mention that more than 100 acres will be covered with caps. It's a real sleight of mind to talk about cleanup by 2006."

But Kaiser-Hill officials, as well as federal and state regulators, maintain that the residual contamination is nothing to worry about: The air, water and soil will be clean enough for the occasional open-space user. Besides, getting rid of all the trillions of stray molecules of plutonium, americium and uranium is neither technically nor economically feasible -- nor is it required by law, they contend.

Many neighbors of the plant who are familiar with the cleanup effort, however, believe the radioactivity that's left behind will surely result in a certain number of cancer deaths in generations to come. "They keep asking us to come up with a number that we can say is acceptable for a certain number of people to die," says Joe Goldfield, a retired chemical engineer and member of a citizens' panel that has been trying to encourage Rocky Flats to adopt more stringent soil standards. "Hell, I don't want to be in a position like this. I want things cleaned up so nobody dies."

In Building 771, workers wear bright-yellow coveralls, two pairs of gloves, two sets of booties, a hard hat and safety goggles. But it's the ominous-looking respirators slung casually around their necks that tip visitors off that something deadly serious is going on. Building 771 is the place where it all began, where the syrupy green plutonium liquid from the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington was transformed into the cores used to ignite atomic and hydrogen bombs. This is the building that workers called the Hellhole, where plutonium exploded, burned, spilled and leaked every day for forty years.

There's still plenty of plutonium around -- in the overhead ducts, behind the painted walls and above the false ceilings. In fact, there's enough plutonium in this building alone to blow Denver into smithereens. Hence the need for security precautions that at first seem a little like the backdrop for a Tom Clancy novel: armed guards, metal detectors, security cameras, badges and barbed-wire fencing.

Before 771 or any of the other heavily contaminated buildings in the Rocky Flats Industrial Area can be demolished, the plutonium and uranium must be removed, stabilized, packaged in special containers and shipped off-site. This sounds simple enough, but one look at the quantities and the complexities of the materials involved shows what an arduous and dangerous task it will be.

When the DOE made the official decision to close Rocky Flats in 1994, approximately 6.7 metric tons of uranium and 9.8 metric tons of plutonium metal and oxides remained on the premises, according to various government reports. An additional 3.1 tons of plutonium is believed to be present in the 106 metric tons of residues that were left over from various production processes. These residues consist not only of contaminated rags, cloth, gloves and paper, but also plutonium fluorides, plutonium salts, plutonium sand, slag and crucibles. Incredibly, the residues have been accumulating at the plant since 1952. The amount of plutonium in these leftovers was considered too high to throw away, so the mixtures were stored in the hope that there would some day be a way to extract and recycle the radioactive metal. But that day never arrived, and now thousands and thousands of barrels are scattered throughout the site.

In addition, there are untold kilograms of plutonium still to be removed from the plant's ducts, filters, glove boxes and process lines. Inside the ducts, the small mounds of plutonium resemble "sand dunes," says Jim Stone, a former mechanical engineer at Rocky Flats and the first employee to publicly warn of the buildup. One reason there is so much plutonium in the interlocking network of pipes, ducts, glove boxes and filters, Stone explains, is that the exhaust systems were not properly maintained or cleaned. Filters were often clogged or missing altogether, and release valves in the glove boxes were frequently left wide open, sucking huge amounts of plutonium dust directly into the ducts.

No one really knows how much plutonium has been trapped in the ductwork. Hazel O'Leary, the much-maligned Energy secretary known for her "Openness Initiatives," said in 1994 that there were some 1,191 kilograms of "inventory difference," or unaccounted-for plutonium, at Rocky Flats. That's more than a ton of plutonium, enough to destroy the world many times over. Soon after O'Leary's admission, a Rocky Flats official estimated that there could be 200 to 300 kilograms of plutonium in the process lines and duct systems alone.

Building 771 has 26 miles of pipes. In each foot of pipe, there could three grams or more of plutonium. A gram of plutonium, which is denser than lead, is hardly bigger than a BB, yet it is so carcinogenic that one-millionth of a gram, or a microgram, can trigger a fatal cancer. One spark or one drop of water that inadvertently falls on a pile of plutonium pushed together in the right configuration could ignite a criticality, or an uncontrolled chain reaction. Complicating the decontamination and dismantling work is the fact that diagrams and blueprints indicating where things are supposed to be are notoriously unreliable or nonexistent.

"Building 771 is a bomb waiting to go off," says Jim Kelly, a longtime union leader at the plant who spent most of his career working in 771. "They don't realize how many hundreds of times that floor was painted, how many thousand of times the walls were painted, how many hundreds of times new false ceilings were put in to hide what's really up there." Rocky Flats was no different than General Motors or the Coca-Cola Company, he adds: "In time, people deviated from the blueprints. They put a switch here, they built a wall there."

As if getting the plutonium out of the ductwork and glove boxes were not enough of a nightmare, Kaiser-Hill will then have to package the plutonium and send it off the premises. (That doesn't mean the nuclear garbage will vanish when it leaves Colorado; it simply becomes some other state's nightmare for the next 240,000 years, which is the time it takes for plutonium to completely lose its radioactivity.)

Because of a plethora of state and federal regulations, Rocky Flats is extremely limited in where it can dispose of its radioactive leftovers. Most of the waste has been sent, or will be sent, to DOE repositories or specially designed DOE waste facilities in other parts of the country. The enriched uranium has already been shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee; the plutonium pits have been delivered to the national labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, or to the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas; about 1,500 pounds of "scrub alloy," the molten salt used to scrub americium from plutonium, as well as other residues that contain high concentrations of plutonium, will be shipped to the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Much of the remaining waste is destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP, the underground salt caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is reserved for a special kind of waste called transuranic waste: nuclear garbage contaminated with any elements heavier than uranium (hence the 'trans') in concentrations of more than 100 nanocuries per gram. (A nanocurie is a billionth of a gram.) The Rocky Flats waste bound for WIPP will be contaminated with isotopes of cesium, strontium, uranium, americium, protactinium, thorium, polonium and plutonium. So far, 1,013 drums have gone to the underground repository, and shipments are expected to increase greatly during the decontamination, decommissioning and demolition work.

Rocky Flats has also managed to ship off thousands of the ill-fated pondcrete and saltcrete blocks to Envirocare, a commercial facility in Utah (see "This Place Is a Dump!" in the July 27 issue). These are the mushy cubes of sludge from the solar evaporation ponds that was mixed with cement and supposed to harden like rocks; instead, the cubes retained the consistency of Play-Doh, oozing and contaminating the ground. Another 16,424 cubic meters of waste has been sent to the Nevada Test Site. There are other categories of garbage -- low-level waste, low-level mixed waste and certain hazardous wastes -- that have not yet found a home. If Rocky Flats can't find a dumping ground for these "orphan" wastes, the General Accounting Office has warned, it's possible that they will be stored on the premises, "greatly diminishing the likelihood of closing the site by the end of 2006."

After the buildings have been decontaminated and the wastes properly disposed of, Rocky Flats will have to get down to the scary business of demolishing the 691 facilities -- that translates to 3.5 million square feet -- that have been erected on the premises. So far, 92 structures have been demolished, including Building 779, one of the first large plutonium-contaminated facilities. The building contained higher levels of radiological and hazardous contamination than Kaiser-Hill expected; consequently, the contractor raised its estimate for the cost of demolishing all of the plant's buildings from $332 million to $912 million. Kaiser-Hill has also been forced to substantially increase its estimates for the amounts of various wastes that will be produced.

Another piece of nasty business is figuring out what the hell is under all of those buildings. A network of tanks, drains and pipelines running above and below the ground shuttled chemical and radioactive wastes from place to place. Also running underneath the buildings is a sewer system that was technically reserved for uncontaminated waste but subsequently became tainted with chemical and radioactive wastes that were flushed from laboratories, production buildings and laundries. Radionuclides, acids, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents, paints, beryllium, oils and human tissue are just a few of the things that went down the drain. Some of the buildings, such as 771, are actually below the water table, and freestanding water has been found in the basements. The challenge for the cleanup crews is figuring out where the contamination is and how to remove it without spreading it farther.

With all of the ongoing activity, Rocky Flats has become almost as dangerous in cleanup as it was when the nuclear pits were rolling off the assembly lines. According to a DOE Web site, the following incidents have been logged:

· In March 1996, while workers were venting twelve drums of liquid waste in Building 776, an enormous amount of plutonium contamination was inadvertently released. The radioactivity was estimated to be more than a million disintegrations per minute (in comparison to normal background counts, which range anywhere from two to twenty disintegrations per minute). Instead of stopping everything, as required by regulations, Kaiser-Hill allowed work to continue and did not survey the area for radionuclide concentration. "As a result, two workers involved in this activity, and others nearby, continued to work under substantially greater hazard conditions," the DOE chided.

· In April 1996, five workers in Building 771 were exposed to varying levels of contamination while transferring plutonium-contaminated waste to plastic bags. One worker, the DOE reported, received a dose equivalent to 400 millirem, which is a little higher than the annual dose that most Colorado residents receive from background sources. Although a radiation monitor was required to be present for the entire event, the monitor had left the area before the job was finished, and several men had removed their respirators before the plutonium waste was safely sealed away.

· In August and September 1996, when Kaiser-Hill was attempting to clean up Trenches 3 and 4, where large amounts of depleted uranium and radioactive sludge had been buried, one to two pounds of depleted uranium were inadvertently left on the ground and exposed to the wind for more than two hours. According to the DOE, Kaiser-Hill didn't sample for possible airborne radioactive material and also failed to post signs warning that the area was contaminated.

· On February 2, 1999, a worker in Building 779 was inadvertently exposed to both plutonium and americium when he cut his index finger with a saw. The employee received a dose of 65 rem to the injured finger, which is considered to be a significant exposure.

· Between February 8 and February 29 of this year, a ventilation system in Building 371, where plutonium is stored, malfunctioned, contaminating a room with radioactivity levels that measured in excess of 40,000 counts per minute. The effort subsequently exposed a cleanup crew to radiation, cost $60,000, and led to the suspension of work for an entire month.

· Between February 1 and June 5 of this year, some thirteen dangerous incidents occurred while material was being moved by forklifts. According to the DOE, several containers of low-level waste were "damaged or breached," and several workers narrowly escaped injury.

On several occasions, Kaiser-Hill has been reprimanded by the DOE for not following proper procurement procedures. The contractor purchased 69 special storage containers for transuranic waste earmarked for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project and filled nine of them before realizing they were defective. Kaiser-Hill was also found to be using storage cans that were not of the proper thickness and had purchased garments used to protect workers from radioactive contamination that were splitting at the seams, DOE records show.

Scattered across the hillsides and ravines of Rocky Flats are dozens of monitoring wells. Seemingly random, they radiate from the industrial area to the plant's four boundaries and even beyond. The water drawn from these wells tells the scientific story of what lies beneath the rocky land.

In the "Upper Hydro-Stratigraphic Unit," the name for the shallow aquifer that runs beneath the site, there are at least six contaminated groundwater plumes that collectively encompass an area equal to more than 300 acres. With their fat, misshapen limbs, the blobs of toxic water swell in the rainy season and shrink during dry months. Several of the plumes contain volatile organic compounds and radioactive metals in concentrations much higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed acceptable.

The groundwater plumes are mostly the result of ad hoc, careless decisions made by officials who ran Rocky Flats in the '50s and '60s. Instead of properly disposing of contaminated oils and solvents, the plant simply pushed wastes out the door, dumping them in trenches, burning them in pits, or spraying them over the land. Over the years, these contaminants seeped into the ground and then into the shallow aquifer.

One of the largest groundwater plumes is under the buildings in the Industrial Area. But plant officials will not be able to fully assess its size or chemical makeup until some of those structures are demolished and holes can be drilled. Another large plume is located below the 903 Pad, where thousands of drums of plutonium-contaminated oils and solvents were stored; a third lies underneath the East Trenches, where thousands of kilograms of depleted uranium were buried; a fourth sprawls beneath the solar evaporation ponds.

Once groundwater has been contaminated, there's no easy way to clean it. Often the best method -- and the cheapest -- is to let microbes in the soil take care of the problem. For several of the most serious plumes, Kaiser-Hill has devised passive collection systems in which the water is collected in pipes and directed into underground vaults or tanks where the contaminants are then cleansed with iron filings. Dave Shelton, vice president of Kaiser-Hill's environmental systems and stewardship program, says the water that comes out on the other side is "excellent."

According to the Rocky Flats Closure Agreement, a sweeping document approved by the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Kaiser-Hill is obligated only to clean up the groundwater that bubbles up and mixes with surface water. What that means is that there will still be contaminated groundwater under the site when the contractor pulls out. But fortunately for Rocky Flats and the rest of Colorado, none of the contaminated groundwater seems to have traveled down as far as the Fox Hills Sandstone, a deep aquifer located several hundred feet below the surface. Rocky Flats officials also maintain that the amount of groundwater beneath the site is rather small and will actually dry up to an even greater extent when the plant is shut down for good. And in what might be the most fortuitous development of all, Rocky Flats officials contend (and state and federal regulators agree) that none of the groundwater flows beyond the plant's boundary.

The same cannot be said for surface water.

Three streams -- North Walnut Creek, South Walnut Creek and Woman Creek -- flow east across the plant's property. Beginning in the 1950s, Rocky Flats officials started constructing holding ponds on the creeks. Theoretically, the contaminants were supposed to settle out in the ponds before the water was released downstream. Despite these measures, however, plutonium, americium and other radionuclides used at Rocky Flats inevitably found their way into Great Western Reservoir, which was located directly downstream and formerly supplied the drinking water for Broomfield, and Standley Lake, which currently supplies water to Westminster, Northglenn and Thornton.

Following the FBI raid of Rocky Flats in 1989, officials from these suburban cities were inundated with calls from panicked residents concerned about the quality of their drinking water. Although Rocky Flats denied that the contaminants in the two reservoirs posed any health hazard, the DOE nonetheless has spent $100 million in the last decade building diversion canals and reservoirs, even purchasing water rights to ensure that communities downstream would be insulated and protected from the water flowing off-site. The DOE has also purchased replacement water rights for the city of Broomfield, which abandoned Great Western as a drinking-water supply. And the DOE funded the construction of the new Woman Creek Reservoir above Standley Lake. Today, after the reservoir water has been tested and deemed safe, it is pumped into Walnut Creek rather than Standley Lake itself.

Although it has committed to huge water projects, Rocky Flats has repeatedly sought relief from state water regulators with regard to certain chemicals and radionuclides being discharged into streams and holding ponds on the plant's property, as well as water flowing downstream. Some of the temporary modifications have been granted for only a decade or so, but others represent permanent changes to the water standards.

With Christmas coming on and temperatures dropping into the single digits overnight, no one was thinking much about water on the morning of December 9, 1996. But the hearing room of the Water Quality Control Commission was packed that morning with state and federal regulators, as well as officials from the DOE and Kaiser-Hill and representatives from the cities of Westminster, Broomfield, Thornton and Northglenn.

One of the most important issues on the commission's agenda that day was the adoption of a newly revised statewide standard for the amount of plutonium that would be allowed in surface water. Citing new scientific evidence, the commission decided to lower the amount of plutonium in the state's surface waters by a factor of ten, from 15 picocuries per liter to 0.15 picocuries per liter. (A picocurie is a trillionth of a curie.) Since the radioisotope americium is nearly always found in the presence of plutonium, the commission also added a new basic standard for americium of 0.15 picocuries per liter.

For any newcomer to the proceedings, this sounded like bad news for Rocky Flats. But the adoption of the revised standard was only the first step in a sequence of decisions that were made that morning. Simultaneous with the adoption of the revised statewide standard, regulators also deleted the "site-specific standards" that had formerly been issued for water flowing off-site from Rocky Flats. And those standards -- 0.05 picocuries for plutonium and 0.05 picocuries for americium -- were actually stricter than the newly revised guidelines. The net effect of the commission's decision: Water that would soon be leaving the site could contain three times as much plutonium and americium as was allowed under the old standards.

This past decade, Rocky Flats has received other modifications -- some temporary, some permanent -- to water standards. In some cases, state regulators granted the changes because the water leaving the site no longer flows directly into drinking-water supplies downstream. In other cases, they approved the modifications because Rocky Flats simply needed regulatory relief during the cleanup period. Some of those changes include:

· The deletion of domestic- and agricultural-use classifications for groundwater. The elimination of these two categories means that Rocky Flats is obligated to clean up only the groundwater that commingles with the surface water on the site.

· An increase in the amount of uranium allowable in Woman Creek from 5 picocuries to 11 picocuries per liter and the amount of allowable beta-emitters (radionuclides that emit electrons) from 5 picocuries to 8 picocuries per liter.

· The removal of drinking-water standards for iron, manganese, chloride and sulfate on water leaving the site.

· Temporary modifications that allow Rocky Flats to discharge more nitrates into streams within the plant's boundaries, as well as certain chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride, benzene, 1,2-dichloroethane, 1,1-dichloroethene, tetrachloroethene and trichloroethene.

· An increase in the allowable amount of beryllium in surface water from 0.0076 micrograms per liter to 4 micrograms per liter.

Rocky Flats has been given wiggle room with regard to numerous other chemicals as well. For example, some of the instruments used to analyze water pollutants are not sensitive enough to detect the allowable limit set by state regulations; in those cases, the detectable amount, which can be several magnitudes greater than the state standard, is considered to be the compliance threshold.

According to retired environmental engineer Joe Goldfield, one of many citizens trying to keep up with the Rocky Flats cleanup effort, such a relaxation of standards is not the normal sequence of events when it comes to pollutants. As more is learned about the toxic effects of a particular chemical, he says, the standards are usually tightened. "It's extraordinarily rare when allowable levels of toxic materials actually increase," Goldfield says. "In fact, it's almost unheard of."

But it wasn't the amount of plutonium that Rocky Flats was discharging into the water that first caught Goldfield's attention. It was the plutonium in the soil.

In 1996, the Department of Energy released a technical-sounding document titled "Action Levels for Radionuclides in Soils for the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement." The document is written in dense language, but its message could have a profound impact on what, exactly, will be cleaned up in the years to come. According to that document, the DOE is planning on leaving as much as 1,429 picocuries of plutonium in the soil -- provided the site is designated as open space.

Joe Goldfield was flabbergasted by the numbers and decided to dig a little deeper. What he found left him even more astonished. "I found soil standards that had been set at many places around the world," he remembers, "and the ones at Rocky Flats stood out like a sore thumb."

For example, at Enewetak Atoll, a small slip of land in the Pacific Ocean where dozens of atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs were detonated in the '40s, '50s and '60s, Goldfield found that no more than 40 picocuries of plutonium could be left in each gram of soil. At Hanford, the vast nuclear reservation in Washington where plutonium was manufactured in huge reactors, the level was 34 picocuries. And at the Nevada Test Site, another location where hundreds of actual bombs had been detonated above and below the surface, the allowable amount was 200 picocuries.

Goldfield figured that the 1,429 figure was equal to 36,000 times background levels. Calculating the impact another way, he estimated that 3,140 radioactive particles per minute would be emitted for each gram of soil that contained the plutonium levels proposed by Rocky Flats. "This incredible bombardment by radioactive particles of humans living on such soil must have some negative health effect!" he later wrote.

A number of other people familiar with the proposed cleanup standards were equally alarmed and soon banded together to fight the issue. Eventually they got the DOE to fund an independent review of soil cleanup levels by the Risk Assessment Corporation, a scientific organization based in South Carolina and headed by John Till, a respected scientist who has conducted numerous studies at nuclear-weapons sites across the country.

As Till and his fellow scientists carefully analyzed the data, Till, too, was struck by the fact that Rocky Flats had developed cleanup standards that were the "least restrictive" of those of any site in the United States. Finally, after eighteen months of study, his group released its recommendation: No more than 35 picocuries of plutonium should remain in the soil. Till's number was one-twentieth of what the DOE was recommending. How could two competent scientific teams come up with such different numbers?

Among other things, Till used different assumptions than the DOE. Instead of an occasional open-space user or an office worker, he based his calculations upon a rancher who lived and worked on the site. But the driving issue behind his analysis was figuring out the plutonium levels that would minimize the cancer risks for generations to come. "In my mind, there is no question whatsoever that in a hundred years there will be development on Rocky Flats," he said during a recent presentation.

The DOE did not spend adequate time analyzing the issues, Till argues. "Our figures are based upon state-of-the-art science and site-specific data," he says. "They are better and more defensible. We took more time and made more realistic calculations and took into account uncertainties."

Rocky Flats officials say they're still reviewing Till's findings. Although they haven't rejected his recommendations outright, numerous cleanup documents recently released by Kaiser-Hill and the government still rely on the same old numbers.

The controversies over cleanup standards for both soil and water illustrate several of the perplexing issues surrounding Rocky Flats. Both plant officials and federal regulators maintain that the level of cleanup should be driven by who will use and live on the site in the coming years. Many of the neighboring cities, as well as state and federal officials, would like to see the property designated as open space or as a wildlife refuge. But there are others, albeit a minority group, who would like to see some development. And even if everybody agrees today that Rocky Flats should remain undeveloped, there's no guarantee that in fifty, or a hundred, or even 500 years from now, potential residents of the site will have the same opinion or even remember that a nuclear-weapons plant once existed there.

With so much at stake over so long a period of time, many activists think the 2006 deadline is shortsighted. "As a practical matter, if you have to meet real water-quality standards and real soil standards, that date is unachievable," says Don Hancock, a spokesman for the Southwest Research and Information Center, a New Mexico-based organization that monitors nuclear-waste issues.

Al Alm, a former DOE assistant secretary for environmental affairs, is widely credited with coming up with the 2006 deadline. A slow-talking businessman with decades of experience in both the private and public sectors, Alm got his start at the Atomic Energy Commission during the Kennedy administration, then went on to work at the Bureau of the Budget, the President's Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA. When Alm returned to the DOE in 1996, one of his first projects was to determine what was being done to clean up decrepit nuclear-weapons production sites around the country. What he found instead, he says, was a "perpetual motion machine" that was going nowhere. With cleanup deadlines set in the far-off future, the bureaucracy had grown fat and lazy. "There are two things you need to make a program more efficient," he explains. "You have to create incentives and you have to create a goal. Any institution that doesn't have a goal or competition becomes extremely inefficient."

So Alm and his senior managers decided that they would try to clean up as much as possible of the plant over a ten-year period. "It costs an incredible amount of money to keep Rocky Flats open," Alm says. "If the purpose of the program is to protect human health, then the faster you get it done, the better you're protecting human health."

Alm's idea soon caught fire. Congress loved it. The contractors embraced it. Federico Peña, the former Denver mayor who served briefly as secretary of the DOE, supported it. But environmentalists, accustomed to the DOE's long history of broken promises, worried about it. "Even the word 'closure' for a place like Rocky Flats is terribly misleading," said Bob Schaeffer, a consultant for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national group of organizations working to address issues of nuclear-weapons production and waste cleanup. "The place is going to need long-term stewardship to deal with the residual contamination."

At Rocky Flats, the 2006 deadline is now a fact of life, something as immutable as the moon or the stars. Outside the gates, however, few people believe that plant officials will actually make the deadline. The DOE's own handpicked accountants, Ernst & Young, concluded that there were numerous issues facing Rocky Flats that "significantly reduced their confidence" in the closure plan being successfully implemented. And even the General Accounting Office, which has a long familiarity with the Colorado facility, said it was "questionable" whether the government and Kaiser-Hill would meet the target date. In fact, the GAO pointed out, a risk analysis prepared by Kaiser Hill itself concluded that the contractor had only a 1 percent chance of closing the site by 2010.

But Kaiser-Hill officials remain committed. And the fine print in the company's two-inch-thick renewal contract helps explain why. If Kaiser-Hill successfully completes the cleanup by December 15, 2006, it gets to collect an extra $15 million in incentive fees. If it misses the deadline, it could lose as much as $20 million.

According to the contract, which became effective February 1, Kaiser-Hill will earn $3.96 billion in basic costs plus $340 million in incentive fees through the year 2006 for cleaning up Rocky Flats. That's on top of the $3.7 billion and the $102 million in incentive fees that the company has already received for work done between 1995 and 1999.

Bonuses have always been a touchy issue at Rocky Flats, and officials for both the DOE and Kaiser-Hill are quick to point out that the incentive fees are not bonuses. Rather, they represent legitimate profits that the contractor is entitled to earn on top of the basic costs associated with the work itself. Explains Frazer Lockhart, the DOE's deputy assistant manager for closure project management: "The word, 'bonus' is a very bad mischaracterization of what the fee represents. If you hired a contractor to remodel your house, you would expect that he would get paid to do the work and get some profit for their effort. That's what the fees represent."

Kaiser-Hill is rewarded with incentive fees for doing nearly everything from the most mundane chore, such as reducing the amount of sanitary waste in the cafeteria, to highly dangerous and complex tasks that include draining waste lines and cutting up glove boxes. Incentive fees are doled out for each step along the way -- from the "characterization" of what's exactly within a drum, a waste pit or a building, to removing the material, repackaging it and shipping it off-site. The DOE can withhold part or all of the fee if the government is unhappy with the job, but publicly available records indicate that that doesn't happen very often.

Even if Kaiser-Hill does make the deadline, the GAO points out that the total cleanup cost could go as high as $8.4 billion, and the number would be even greater if a more stringent cleanup level were required. That figure also does not include the millions to billions of dollars that will be needed to monitor and maintain the site for untold decades after the plant has been shut down for good.

Jim Kelly, the longtime union leader at Rocky Flats, grimaces a little when he thinks about Kaiser-Hill demolishing Building 771, the first plutonium-production facility ever built. He knows the plutonium is everywhere -- in the walls, the ceilings, the basement, the tunnels and vaults. "The day they take a wrecking ball to 771 will be a disastrous day for the state of Colorado," he says. "That's the monument to my truth."

Even if Kaiser-Hill manages to safely demolish the buildings, Joe Goldfield thinks the company will find enormous amounts of plutonium beneath them. Based on one DOE document, he estimates that there could be anywhere from 2.5 kilograms to 7.5 kilograms of plutonium under the buildings. "They know there's a lot of stuff there," he says.

The wrecking ball is slated to hit the buildings mostly heavily contaminated with plutonium in the latter years of the contract. After that, the final restoration begins. One of the key issues will be figuring out a way to cover and contain the remaining contamination. Documents made public so far indicate that officials intend to construct three, and possibly four, large caps. The areas to be covered include the solar evaporation ponds, the two landfills and possibly the heavily contaminated plutonium-production facilities. The caps could top as much as 100 acres and require more than 2 million cubic yards of sand and gravel.

Many environmental watchdogs question the use of such caps. The coverings, they point out, will undoubtedly fail long before the plutonium has decayed to safe levels. Nor has it been proven that the caps will prevent contaminants from escaping. "We need a cleanup that doesn't rely on engineered controls such as caps," says LeRoy Moore, consultant to the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. "The DOE's plans seem driven by cost and an arbitrary closure deadline rather than protection of public health and environmental integrity."

It's not yet clear what Kaiser-Hill plans to do about the contaminated soil. The company could scrape off the upper layers and recontour the land, but the task would add millions to the cleanup bill and leave the contractor with the problem of disposing tons of radioactive dirt.

A "conceptual land use" map recently prepared by Kaiser-Hill contains some hints of what the future may look like. On that map, a total of 1,400 acres has been designated as "restricted open space." This restricted area runs in a broad swath eastward across the site and encompasses much of the land that was contaminated with plutonium from the 903 Pad, the site where thousands of barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in the '50s and '60s.

Scattered throughout the site will be numerous other artifacts from Rocky Flats' toxic past. As many as 89 ground wells may have to be monitored on a semi-annual basis to ensure the contaminated water is not moving off-site. Every ten years or so, the iron filings being used to clean the groundwater will have to be replaced, and the spent filings, which will then become low-level waste, shipped off-site. Holding ponds and diversion ditches will also have to be cleaned periodically.

For all of these activities, the DOE has budgeted approximately $385 million through the year 2070. Jim Stone, the engineer who blew the whistle about plutonium in the ducts at Rocky Flats, says the additional costs simply prove his point that the area will not be truly decontaminated when the contractor walks away. "Why would you need monitoring equipment if the site was really going to be clean?" he asks.

And who knows what the world will look like seventy years, seven centuries or even seven millennia from now? There may well be no United States and no state of Colorado. But one thing is certain: The plutonium will be just as radioactive as the day that it arrived at the weapons plant once called Rocky Flats.


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