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
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
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
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."