When the FBI raided and closed the Rocky Flats nuclear facility just outside Denver, Colo., in 1989, agents found illegal emissions of radioactive materials. But more problems were on the way. Sam Cole of Physicians For Social Responsibility says that since then, plant managers have been "spinning their wheels," and not taking care of a dangerous buildup of hydrogen gas.
The gas is escaping from plutonium, which was used to trigger nuclear bombs. Fourteen tons of leftover plutonium were stored in tanks after the plant was shut down, but in 1993, scientists noticed that the tanks were swelling from pressure created by hydrogen gas, a by-product of stagnant plutonium. When the Energy Department sent its safety board to investigate, it concluded that the hydrogen build-up had reached "well into the explosion range."
Rocky Flats officials first placed the plutonium tanks in a shielded room to contain a possible blast. Then they installed venting systems to alleviate pressure from the hydrogen. Rocky Flats spokesman Pat Etchart says these steps prevent any threat to the public. "The threat is like more of a burp," Etchart says.
Officials are also taking steps to transform the plutonium from a liquid to a solid state to further reduce the risk of a blowup. But Cole, who has watchdogged Rocky Flats since 1984, says these precautions should have been taken years ago. Rocky Flats, he believes, is now the most unsafe nuclear facility in the country.
* Bill Taylor