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.

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."

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Eileen Welsome