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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rocky Flats Cleanup

Air Date: Week of

The Department of Energy is using Rocky Flats as a model of efficiency in its project to cleanup and close some of the nation's aging nuclear facilities. But, some say the cleanup is going too fast, and not far enough. David Barrett Wilson reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Plutonium triggers for U.S. nuclear warheads were made during the Cold War at a place 17 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado, called Rocky Flats. Today, Rocky Flats is being shut down. It's also being held up as a model of the Department of Energy's efforts to mount efficient cleanups of its 50-year-old nuclear weapons facilities. But as David Barrett Wilson reports, a number of people who live near Rocky Flats are growing concerned about the accelerated pace of the cleanup, and what will be left behind.

(Fans and bird song)

WILSON: Behind layers of razor wire and security guards armed with assault rifles and Geiger counters, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility holds one of the world's largest supplies of plutonium, an essential radioactive element in making nuclear weapons.

(A door opens, creaking)

NICKLESS: Okay, we'll go ahead and go on back. We're going to be going into what's called a radiologically contaminated area.

WILSON: Dave Nickless is overseeing the decontamination of Building 779. This sprawling two-story concrete block house is the first nuclear weapons production facility to be tackled in an ambitious plan to clean up Rocky Flats' 400-acre industrial complex. Some day this might be prime commercial real estate with a Rocky Mountain backdrop, that is, if Nickless's workers can remove enough of the radioactive material from these old buildings.

(Engines, fans)

WILSON: Outfitted in huge, inflated suits to protect them from radioactive dust, his workers are in the final stage of gutting the structure's innards before demolition.

(Drills, hammering)

WILSON: Workers are dismantling their first plutonium building so quickly that Kaiser Hill, the company that runs Rocky Flats for the Department of Energy, now believes it can clean up and close the entire facility decades ahead of schedule.

(Door shuts. Bird song, humming, ambient voices)

WILSON: The accelerated cleanup prompted Bill Richardson, the head of the U. S. Department of Energy, to come to Rocky Flats recently and return some of the facility's land back to the community.

RICHARDSON: I am hereby designating the 800 acres you can see behind us as the Rock Creek Reserve, one of the most vital ecosystems and unique habitats in the front range of Colorado.

WILSON: Richardson stood on the short grass prairie that separates Rocky Flats from the encroaching Denver metropolis. It's called a buffer zone, a 6,000-acre parcel that surrounds Rocky Flats' industrial core. It's been off-limits to the public for decades now. And while parts of the buffer zone are contaminated, much of the land was left undisturbed by Rocky Flats activities, creating ideal habitat for wildlife. Richardson says the current focus is on accelerating the cleanup.

RICHARDSON: Just a few years ago, the experts said that this cleanup would take 70 years and cost $36 billion. But an aggressive, creative, and innovative team of managers and workers is shaving years and billions of dollars from the original estimate. Today, we are talking seriously about finishing by 2006.

WILSON: The DOE spends half a billion dollars a year to safely maintain Rocky Flats, so a cleanup by 2006 would dramatically cut the cost of closing the facility. But some observers wonder whether a fast cleanup will be a safe cleanup.

NAVARRO: There's a very real possibility of a dirty closure.

WILSON: David Navarro is vice president of the steelworkers union at Rocky Flats. He fears present cleanup plans will leave behind land and water contaminated with plutonium for hundreds of thousands of years.

NAVARRO: [The year] 2006 isn't an achievable number based on the funding that they have available to accelerate the timetable. And it ought to be open-ended.

WILSON: And David Navarro isn't the only person with that concern.

JONES: I think they have an awful lot of challenges in terms of the ability to get the right people and the right resources involved to be able to do it by 2006.

WILSON: Gary Jones oversees nuclear issues for the federal government's General Accounting Office. Her agency recently released two reports detailing the problems facing Rocky Flats cleanup and closure goals. She says final decisions about the level of cleanup work remain unclear.

JONES: Some of the stakeholders out in the Rocky Flats area, the local communities believe that it should be greenfields, which means that they can bring their children in and have picnics. Others believe that they'll never, ever be able to clean up to that level.

(Flowing water)

WILSON: Today it's hard to imagine a family picnic taking place along this stretch of Walnut Creek, which drains from the Rocky Flats property. During the 1950s and 60s, hazardous and radioactive waste were dumped on the hillside just above here.

LEGERRE: What we're looking at here is called a passive-reactive barrier. And the beauty of...

WILSON: Head of the environmental compliance for the Department of Energy, Joe Legerre points to a spot nearby where several feet underground, contaminated groundwater flows through iron filings, which neutralize several hazardous contaminants. Similar technologies are treating plutonium plumes that have seeped into water and soil. These techniques cost millions of dollars less than older methods of pumping and treating the water, or digging up and removing the soil. And Legerre says they're more effective.

LEGERRE: Are you doing more harm to the environment by excavating acres and acres of land? Or, since the land has been demonstrated to be safe, safe for the intended land use, where do you draw that balance.

WILSON: Joe Legerre believes the technology used to clean the groundwater here will eventually do the job, but not, he says, before the year 2030. Even then, he adds, traces of radioactive and hazardous chemicals will be left behind. A long-term stewardship program will be needed, he says, along with the money to pay for it.

LEGERRE: There's still considerable discussion in the community about the how clean is clean dilemma.

(Beeps; an engine starts up)

WILSON: One of the biggest challenges facing the Rocky Flats cleanup is where to put the radioactive and hazardous waste now being excavated. This spring a federal judge opened one avenue for Rocky Flats managers by dismissing a slew of lawsuits and allowing the Department of Energy to open up the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. WIPP, as it is called, is a deep underground dump site dug out of an ancient salt formation. And for now, that's where Rocky Flats waste is going, but not without a protest.


CROWD: Stop WIPP! Stop WIPP! Stop WIPP! Stop WIPP!

WILSON: A group of more than 100 people tried to stop the first WIPP-bound truck from leaving Rocky Flats. They're concerned about accidents that could spill plutonium onto highways. They also oppose ending Colorado's problem to New Mexico. Speaking to the crowd of protestors, activist LeRoy Moore said the plutonium should remain at Rocky Flats until better methods are found to neutralize the waste, instead of just burying it underground somewhere else.

MOORE: There is no guarantee that that plutonium put into the environment at that facility in New Mexico will not some day leak from that facility and come to the surface environment and contaminate a non-contaminated area and endanger people that had not had to live in that kind of environment previously.

(Drums and chanting continue)

ANDERSON: ...what may be an expensive solution. They're going to be open whether we're shipping or not. I mean, I think that's pretty obvious. And so the idea is now to take advantage of that, realize the savings for the site, put that savings back into the cleanup, and accomplish the cleanup faster.

WILSON: Scotty Anderson manages Rocky Flats plutonium shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. To achieve the 2006 closure goal, he says he'll need to send a truck a day to New Mexico for the next seven years. So far he's making one shipment a week.

ANDERSON: I'm optimistic now. We've got one down, a couple more thousand to go (laughs). But we've got to start somewhere.

(Traffic; fade to protesters)

WILSON: Rocky Flats is only one of ten nuclear facilities that the Department of Energy is now attempting to clean up. Places like Hanford in Washington state and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. University of Colorado journalism professor Len Ackland calls these sites vivid reminders of the nation's ongoing nuclear legacy.

ACKLAND: People now need to look back, I think, and try to learn from the history of that plant. I mean, here was a plant sitting 16 miles from downtown Denver that created some 70,000 nuclear bombs, bombs that could destroy both our species and many other species. And yet, most of the public simply wasn't concerned about it. And I think that says something about the way our society works.

WILSON: Len Ackland has just published a history of Rocky Flats called Making A Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. Rocky Flats, he notes, is no longer in the business of building the bomb. But other nuclear facilities like Los Alamos in New Mexico continue to design and produce new nuclear weapons.

ACKLAND: We have to realize that the Cold War is over, but the nuclear weapons age is far from over.

WILSON: For Living On Earth, I'm David Barrett Wilson.



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