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Rocky Flats Plant


The Rocky Flats Plant was a weapons production facility of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that operated from 1952 to 1988. It was located near Denver, Colorado in the United States.




Following World War II, the United States began production of the hydrogen bomb. The AEC chose the Dow Chemical Company to manage the bomb production facility. A site about 15 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado on a windy plateau called Rocky Flats was chosen for the facility. On July 10, 1951, ground was broken on the first building in the facility.

In 1953, the plant began production of bomb components, manufacturing plutonium triggers, or "pits", which were used at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas to assemble nuclear weapons.

By 1957, the plant had expanded in size to 27 buildings. In this year, a fire occurred in one of the stainless steel gloveboxes used to handle radioactive materials. The accident resulted in the contamination of Building 71 and the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere, and caused US $818,600 in damage. An incinerator for plutonium-contaminated waste was installed in Building 71 in 1958.

Barrels of radioactive waste were found to be leaking into an open field in 1959. This was not made publicly known until 1970 when wind-borne particles were detected in Denver.


Throughout the 1960s, the plant continued to enlarge and add buildings. The Sixties also brought more contamination to the site. In 1967, 3,500 barrels of plutonium-contaminated lubricants and solvents were stored on Pad 903. A large number of them were found to be leaking, and low-level contaminated soil was becoming wind-borne from this area. This pad was covered with gravel and paved over with asphalt in 1969.

1969 saw a major fire in a glovebox in Building 776/777. This was the costliest industrial accident to ever occur in the United States up to that time. Cleanup from the accident took two years and led to safety upgrades on the site, including sprinkler systems and firewalls.


In order to reduce the danger of public contamination and to create a security area around the plant following protests, Congress authorized the purchase of a 4,600 acre (18 km²) buffer zone around the plant in 1972.

In 1973, nearby Walnut Creek and the Great Western Reservoir were found to have elevated tritium levels. The tritium was determined to have been released from contaminated materials shipped to Rocky Flats from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Discovery of the contamination by the Colorado Department of Health led to investigations by the AEC and EPA. As a result of the investigation, several mitigation efforts were put in place to prevent further contamination. Some of the elements included channeling of waste water runoff to three dams for testing before release into the water system and construction of an reverse osmosis facility to clean up waste water.

The next year, elevated plutonium levels were found in the topsoil near the now covered Pad 903. An additional 4,500 acres (18 km²) of buffer zone were purchased.

1975 saw Rockwell International replacing Dow as the contractor for the site. This year also saw local landowners suing for property contamination caused by the plant.

In 1978, 60 protesters were arrested for trespassing at Rocky Flats, and were brought to trial before Judge Kim Goldberger. Dr. John Candler Cobb, Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Colorado Medical Center, testified that the most significant danger of radioactive contamination came from the 1967 incident in which oil barrels containing plutonium leaked 5000 gallons of oil into the sand, which was then blown by strong winds as far away as Denver. Radioactivity of sand under the barrels was measured at 30 million disintegrations per minute, 15 million times higher than the state standard of two disintegrations per minute.[1]

A report released by Jefferson County Health Department director, Dr. Carl Johnson, indicated that incidents of cancer were higher near Rocky Flats. This report was refuted by a Department of Energy (DOE) report indicating lower cancer rates in males employed at Rocky Flats than in the national population.

[1979] Saturday, April 28th, 1979 - weeks after the Three Mile Island accident- a crowd of close to 15,000 protesters assembled at a nearby site. Singers Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt took the stage along with various speakers. The following day, 286 protesters including Daniel Ellsberg were arrested for civil-disobedience/trespassing on the Rocky Flats facility.


Rocky Flats became a focus of protest by peace activists throughout the 1980s. In 1983, a massive demonstration was organized that brought together 17,000 people who joined hands in an encirclement around the 17-mile perimeter of the plant.

A perimeter security zone was installed around the facility in 1983 and was upgraded with remote detection abilities in 1985. Also in 1983, the first radioactive waste was processed through the aqueous recovery system, creating a plutonium button.

A celebration of 25,000,000 continuous safe hours by the employees at Rocky Flats happened in 1985. The same year, Rockwell received Industrial Research Magazine's IR-100 award for a process to remove actinide contamination from waste water at the plant.

The next year, the site received a National Safety Council Award of Honor for outstanding safety performance.

In 1988, several events occurred that put the plant's past and future into a dim light. A DOE safety evaluation resulted in a report that was critical of safety measures at the plant. The EPA fined the plant for PCB leaks from a transformer. A solid waste form, called pondcrete, was found to have not cured properly and was leaking from containers. A boxcar of transuranic waste from the site was refused entry into the state of Idaho and returned to the plant. Plans to potentially close the plant were released.

1989 was more devastating to Rocky Flats than 1988. An employee left a faucet running resulting in chromic acid being released into the sanitary water system. The Colorado Department of Health and the EPA both posted full-time personnel at the plant to monitor safety. Plutonium production was suspended due to safety violations.

FBI Investigation

Insiders at the plant started "tipping" the FBI about the unsafe conditions sometime in 1988. Late that year the FBI started clandestinely flying light aircraft over the area and noticed that the incinerator was apparently being used late into the night. After several months of collecting evidence both from workers and by direct measurement, they informed the DOE on June 6, 1989 that they wanted to meet about a potential terrorist threat. When the DOE officers arrived, they were served with papers. Simultaneously, the FBI raided the facilities and ordered everyone out. They found numerous violations of federal anti-pollution laws including massive contamination of water and soil, though none of the original charges that led to the raid were substantiated.

In 1992, Rockwell was charged with minor environmental crimes and paid an $18.5 million fine.


Rockwell was replaced by EG&G as primary contractor for the Rocky Flats plant. EG&G began an aggressive work safety and cleanup plan for the site that included construction of a system to remove contamination from the groundwater of the site. The Sierra Club vs. Rockwell case was decided in favor of the Sierra Club. The ruling directed Rocky Flats to manage plutonium residues as hazardous waste.

In 1991, an Interagency Agreement between DOE, the Colorado Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlined multi-year schedules for environmental restoration studies and remediation activities. The DOE released a report that advocated downsizing the plant's production into a more streamlined facility. Due to the fall of the Soviet Union, production of most of the systems at Rocky Flats was no longer needed, leaving only the W88 warhead triggers.

In 1992, production was discontinued of submarine-based missiles using the W88 trigger, leading to the layoff of 4,500 employees at the plant. 4,000 others were retained for long-term cleanup of the facility. The Rocky Flats Plant Transition Plan outlined the environmental restoration process. The DOE announced that 61 pounds (28 kg) of plutonium lined the exhaust ductwork in six buildings on the site.

Starting in 1993, weapons grade plutonium began to be shipped to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site.

1994 saw a new name for the site, the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, reflecting the changed nature of the site from weapon production to environmental cleanup and restoration. The cleanup effort was contracted to the Kaiser-Hill Company which proposed release of 4,100 acres (16 km²) of the buffer zone for public access.

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s and into the 2000s, cleanup of contaminated sites and dismantling of contaminated buildings continued with the waste materials being shipped to the Nevada Test Site, the Envirocare company in Utah, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

In 1999, 800 acres (3 km²) were turned over to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service creating the Rock Creek Reserve.


In 2000, Congress proposed transforming Rocky Flats to a wildlife refuge, setting aside 6,400 acres (25 km²) after cleanup and closure. The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act passed in 2001.[2]

The last contaminated building was removed and the last weapons-grade plutonium was shipped out in 2003, ending the cleanup based on a modified cleanup agreement. The modified agreement required a higher level of cleanup in the first 3 feet (1 m) of soil in exchange for not having to remove any contamination below that point unless it posed a chance of migrating to the surface or contaminating the groundwater.[3]

About half of the 800 buildings previously existing on the site had been dismantled by early December 2004.

Due to fires (principally the fire in 1957) and other inadvertent releases (principally due to wind at a waste storage area) the site is contaminated with plutonium. The other major contaminant is carbon tetrachloride. Both of these substances affected areas adjacent to the site. There were also small releases of dioxin (from incineration), beryllium and tritium.

Clean-up was declared complete on October 13 2005. About 1,000 acres of the new wildlife refuge (the former Industrial Area) will remain under DOE control to protect the ongoing environmental monitoring and remedy.

In February of 2006, after a 16-year legal battle, a federal jury ruled against Dow Chemical and Rockwell International in a class-action lawsuit brought by 12,000 property owners living downwind from Rocky Flats. The jury awarded $110 million in punitive damages against Dow Chemical, $89 million against Rockwell International, and $177 million against each company in actual damages. Lawyers for the two companies said they would appeal.[4]

On June 13, 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had certified the cleanup of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, another step toward the planned conversion of the site to a wildlife refuge.[5]


  • Patricia Buffer. Rocky Flats History. Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. Retrieved on 7 October, 2005. - PDF
  1. ^ Bob Reuteman, "Vindication at last for all who feared Rocky Flats", The Rocky Mountain News, 18 February 2006.
  2. ^ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2007-01-31). Final Rocky Flats Sign Text (PDF). Retrieved on 2007-04-19.
  3. ^ "Glovebox removal heralds new Flats era", The Denver Post, 9 December 2004.
  4. ^ Katie Kelley, "Jury Urges Millions in Penalties for Contamination Near Former Nuclear Site", The New York Times, 16 February 2006.
  5. ^ Daily Camera, "EPA certifies cleanup at Rocky Flats", Daily Camera, 13 June 2007.

Maps and aerial photos

  • Rocky Flats before (1995) and after (2005) cleanup.
  • Rocky Flats Plant is at coordinates 39°53′24″N 105°12′13″W / 39.889851, -105.203533Coordinates: 39°53′24″N 105°12′13″W / 39.889851, -105.203533
  • Google Map+Satellite Hybrid
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Rocky_Flats_Plant". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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