Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Courting the Bomb."
During public hearings this summer, Department of Energy officials repeatedly stated that nuclear bomb triggers could be built safely. Their “modern pit facility” would be, as its name suggests, fully modernized and superior to the department’s previous pit-manufacturing projects.
Their insistence was understandable: The department’s past efforts, at Rocky Flats outside of Denver, are hardly a reassuring precedent. The facility opened in 1952 and, at its peak, produced thousands of plutonium “pits” per year. Managers took a production-first, safety-second approach that led to near-disastrous fires, contamination of soil and groundwater, and exposure of workers to radiation and lung-ravaging beryllium dust.
Though conclusive data on Rocky Flats-related health problems is difficult to come by, a recent study found that former employees have higher than expected rates of some cancers. Westminster, Colo., resident Janet Brown, who worked at Rocky Flats for more than a decade, suffers from severe seizures that she blames on radiation and what she calls a “witches’ brew” of toxic chemicals. “I’m proud of the work we did,” she says. “I feel very strongly that we won the Cold War. But we won it at our health’s expense.”
Pit production at Rocky Flats was shut down in 1989, after the FBI raided the site on suspicion of environmental crimes. Much of the site’s radioactive waste is now being shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside of Carlsbad, N.M., and the Rocky Flats facility is expected to be cleaned up and permanently closed by the end of 2006.
Could the Energy Department’s proposed modern pit facility rise above the legacy of Rocky Flats? The facility would be much smaller, producing between 125 and 450 pits per year, and its draft environmental impact statement spends just over a page describing safety practices that would distinguish the facility from its predecessor. But since some forms of plutonium spontaneously ignite when exposed to air, the impact statement concedes that the risk of fire “cannot be totally eliminated.”
Journalist and University of Colorado professor Len Ackland, the author of the 1999 book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, says these caveats don’t change the fundamental nature of the new factory. “This is basically Rocky Flats II,” he says. “There may be technical fixes, but even if it’s the safest facility ever built, it still doesn’t justify the production of weapons of mass destruction."