Building 771 of the Rocky Flats closure site was once known as the most dangerous building in the United States. “In building 771, we have a room which has a unique reputation all by itself,” says Barbara Mazurowski, manager of the Rocky Flats nuclear clean-up and closure project for the U.S. Department of Energy. “There was a fire in this room in 1971 and there were such high levels of contamination released in this room that it was called the Infinity Room.”
She says after that fire 30 years ago, the radioactivity in the building rose to such high levels that it could not be measured with the existing equipment.
“So the amount of radioactivity was immeasurable, or to the point of infinity,” she says while adding that there is no contamination in building 771 now. “Because of the work that we’ve done here in this building: removing the glove boxes, removing the tanks, removing process lines, decontaminating the building, this is no longer the most dangerous building in America.”
Still, everyone entering building 771 has to wear special protective clothing and everyone going out has to be tested for possible contamination.
For almost 40 years, workers at the Colorado Rocky Flats site fabricated components for nuclear weapons. The components were then assembled in other places and the finished weapons were turned over to the Department of Defense for deployment. There is hardly a nuclear weapon anywhere in the United States that does not contain a part made at Rocky Flats.
Patrick Etchart, spokesman for the Department of Energy, says the components were made from plutonium, uranium, beryllium and stainless steel, utilizing various dangerous chemicals in the process.
“Plutonium would actually come in the form of what is called ‘metal button’ the size of a hockey puck,” he says. “It was dull gray metal. And you would take it and put it into the furnaces, into the rolling and forming mills and put it into the right shape for the weapon component.”
To protect workers from radioactive material, especially alpha-particles that are most harmful when inhaled, all the operations were performed in special enclosures, called glove-boxes. A worker would push his hands into long protective gloves attached to one side of the box and work with highly contaminating materials inside. All sides of the boxes were transparent so the worker could see what he was doing inside them.
The decontamination process includes taking all the equipment out of the glove boxes and ridding it of radioactive particles. The material that cannot be sufficiently cleaned is packed into special waste drums, which are shipped to nuclear waste sites for isolation. Patrick Etchart says only when a building is completely decontaminated, can it be dismantled.
“What we’ve been doing lately is trying to accelerate the south side demolition,” he says. “And, the south side was non-plutonium operation so some of these are easier buildings that we can take down quicker and that’s what we are doing, we are taking them down.”
The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site closed operations in 1989. The clean-up and closure project started in 1995 and is scheduled to be finished in 2010. The cost of this -- the world’s largest nuclear clean-up project -- is $2 million a day. Mr. Etchart says the Department of Energy and Kaiser-Hill, the company contracted to do the job, are working on completing the closure ahead of schedule.
“When they first talked about closing Rocky Flats,” he says, “some of the original estimates were that it would take 60 years and cost around $37 billion. We have been able to cut that schedule to 2006 at a total cost of between $6 and $7 billion.”
About 4,500 employees are working on dismantling the site, including physicists, chemists, engineers, medical and security personnel and construction workers. Many of them used to produce nuclear weapons at Rocky Flats and have been re-trained to perform nuclear clean-up tasks. The plant where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced during the Cold War, is to become a wildlife refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But skeptics are concerned that the site will be far from safe. At one time it stored more than 14 tons of plutonium, much of it in liquid form. The liquid entered the deteriorating piping system and, many scientists fear, into the ground. Furthermore, the facility has a poor record of compliance with safety procedures. Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. “In June 1989,” he says, “the FBI raided Rocky Flats because there were allegations of midnight burning of plutonium waste, which are as yet unresolved. And a federal grand jury was put together to investigate whether the corporation in charge of running Rocky Flats was committing crimes and it was a very, very big scandal.”
Last month workers came across a buried waste incinerator that was thought to have been dismantled years ago. A previous crew apparently removed only a part of the incinerator and simply pushed dirt over the rest of the concrete structure.
Arjun Makhijani says the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Soviet nuclear power plant Chernobyl in Ukraine and the Rocky Flats scandal has prompted Americans to question the need for so many large nuclear facilities.
“But when people started asking questions,” he says, “they realized that the bombs had been polluting their neighborhoods, creating massive amounts of waste, in some cases releasing very large amounts of radio-activity, that deliberate experiments had been done to release radioactivity. They found that under the cover of national security, many unsafe polluting and dangerous enterprises were being operated. So they started saying: ‘Well, the Cold War is over, why do we have to have this reactor or this plutonium processing plant or this uranium processing plant near our homes when we maybe don’t even need the bombs?’”
In the wake of public outcry at the discovery of unsafe tests and other practices in the nuclear industry, the U.S. Congress formed the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in 1988 to oversee the nuclear weapons plants operated by the Department of Energy. By the end of the Cold War, the United States had a large surplus of nuclear weapons and by the late 1980’s had already begun to close some of the largest nuclear-weapons facilities.
Since Rocky Flats closed in 1989, the United States has not been able to produce new designs of bomb cores on a massive scale. The production of existing designs continues elsewhere in the United States. Arjun Mkhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environment Research says the Department of Energy is considering opening a new facility for the design and production of new nuclear weapons. But he says the American people will have a bigger say in where and when that happens.