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Clean-Up Continues at Rocky Flats Nuclear Site - 2002-09-17

The western state of Colorado evokes images of the spectacular Rocky Mountains and unspoiled nature. But some areas of Colorado are dotted with industrial plants that may not be environmentally friendly. One of the biggest industrial giants that used to operate in the greater Denver area, a former nuclear weapons production site, is now being dismantled to give place to a new national park. Colorado's Rocky Flats Closure is the world's largest nuclear clean-up project of this magnitude.

We are in building 771 of the Rocky Flats closure site - 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 Project Manager Barbara Mazurowski. "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."

Ms. Mazurowski manages the Rocky Flats nuclear clean-up and closure project for the U.S. Department of Energy. 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.

Ms. Mazurowski says 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 of 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 came in the form of what is called "metal button" the size of a hockey puck. It was dark gray metal," says Mr. Etchart. "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 the so-called 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 gloves were attached to one side of the box, with the open end outside and "fingers" deep inside the box.

"When we stopped operations, plutonium was left in seven major buildings out here," says Mr. Etchart. "One of the first things we did was remove the plutonium from six of those buildings and consolidate it in the one remaining building and then we started basically decontaminating and cleaning up the building."

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. Some of these sites are in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico.

Mr. 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. And, the south side was the non-plutonium operation so some of these are easier buildings that we can take down quicker so 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. With the heightened security measures after the September 11 attacks, the cost has become even higher.

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, which would save a lot of tax-payers' money. "When they first talked about clean-up, some of the original estimates were that it would take 60 years and cost around $37 billion," he says. "We have been able to cut down the schedule to 2006, four years from now, at a total cost between $6 billion and $7 billion."

About 4,500 employees are currently working on dismantling the site: physicists, chemists, engineers, medical and security personnel, construction workers and others. When they finish their job, many of them will probably return to Rocky Flats, but not to a nuclear weapons plant. Instead, there will be a national park, affording spectacular views of those famous Rocky Mountains.