Rocky Flats - From plutonium trigger factory to wildlife preserve
February 17, 2014 12:39 AM   Subscribe

Kristen Iversen wants to better inform Colorado residents about the history of the Rocky Flats Plutonium processing facility and recommends this brief YouTube documentary as an introductory primer.

Many residents of Arvada, Colorado and other surrounding cities are well aware of the existence of the nearby Rocky Flats Plant and its connection by way of Woman Creek [pdf], which runs through the plant property and feeds Arvada's Standley Lake reservoir, a source of municipal drinking water for several cities. The subject of the plant's existence butting up against the suburbs is often made light of despite many accidents over the years, which have dissipated plutonium throughout surrounding areas.

During a recent talk in Broomfield, Colorado, Kristen recommended the aforementioned YouTube video while discussing her combined biographical and documentary book, Full Body Burden. Her talk covered the overall history of Rocky Flats, from its ill-chosen location in an extremely windy location overseeing developing residential areas (which grew in part due to employment provided by the plant), to the cloak of secrecy kept over the plant's existence, the profound lethality of plutonium, the various accidents and fires over the years, and the failure to achieve closure in the case of nearby residents and plant workers who contracted various forms of cancers and thyroid diseases.

Additional background:
Black Circle, an Obscure Find on the topic from 1982

A sealed grand jury report mentioned in Iversen's book - veracity unknown
posted by lordaych (26 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Full disclosure: long time resident of the area, concerned citizen who spend nearly a decade a few blocks from the author and just learned about the extent of this recently. Even worse, the recent flooding really pounded this area and Rocky Flats is supposedly dotted with 1,300 acres of "do not ever touch or go there" territory which were thoroughly hit by the flooding, with a significant amount triggering reservoir spill-overs in the exact same area referenced in the book.

And to clarify, the Woman creek no longer feeds the Standley Lake reservoir, due to the creation of a new reservoir intended to prevent additional contamination events.
posted by lordaych at 12:47 AM on February 17, 2014

Wow. I am fascinated by criticality accidents. To me, it seems to be one of the hardest parts of radioactive materials handling, especially during a manufacturing process.
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 7:06 AM on February 17, 2014

There's a huge gap between the linked video (watch all three parts), and the corporate PR video put out (I assume) the cleanup contractor (it's all fine now!).
The first video really shows that a lot of the nuclear waste problem is not disposal of the final product - fuel rods or bomb cores - but all the contaminated stuff generated in production: gallons of cutting fluid from machining, solvents used in chemical manipulations, protective clothing worn by workers...
posted by 445supermag at 7:28 AM on February 17, 2014

Full Body Burden is a desperately grim book. Not from the writing, which is deft in combining family secrets with environmental discoveries, but from the way that nothing that is mentioned ends well. You almost want her to stop bringing new names into the book, because you know shortly they'll be sickened or die of something related to the plant.

Society isn't smart enough to handle radioactivity. You can write the best handling procedures. You can design the perfect containment vessel. But someone, somewhere, sometime will cut corners and not follow procedure. Someone won't build that vessel quite to standard. Someone will cover up the details of an incident to protect their job. Sometime in the future, the land around Woman Creek will be seen as a great place to build, and the Pu-laden soil will be disturbed.
posted by scruss at 7:36 AM on February 17, 2014

I used to drive past there on highway 93 on my way to work, and occasionally drive past these days on either 93 or Indiana. It's interesting to see development on the site now with subdivisions and industrial parks. I would never, ever choose to live "down stream" from the place, let alone right on the former property. I am all too aware of what went on in there, and not real impressed with reassurances from the government regarding the safety of the area. Yet people choose to live there for whatever reason. The wind alone would be enough to avoid living in Rocky Flats.

I've known people who worked out there, and it's interesting hearing stories of the place, like the secret underground museum of nuclear weapons they had there.

Another interesting side note. When they shut the place down, some of the machining equipment was donated to the community college system for vocational training. An impressive array of quality equipment, theoretically never used for anything radioactive.

I haven't seen these videos yet, but I plan to when I get the chance. Thanks for posting these.
posted by Eekacat at 7:38 AM on February 17, 2014

Long-term security and waste disposal sound harder to me (as perhaps the plant's report card tends to confirm). What sets those apart is that within an industrial setting, fire and criticality control are inherently deterministic. The waste and security issues are more subject to the behaviors of broad, complex, and unstable systems in geological, political, historical, and cultural terms.

The security issue worries me more than ever, especially after Snowden. If the NSA couldn't prevent a Snowden, what makes anyone think a successful nuclear theft and attack won't eventually occur? Is Rocky Flat's current contractor somehow better at internal security than the NSA? Or better funded? Or what?
posted by maniabug at 7:44 AM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

And hey, Colorado residents get a higher radiation exposure than most of the rest of the planet as it is due to the high altitude and the local geology (the uranium's gotta come from somewhere).

More on nearby housing developments from the Denver Post and Westword.
posted by asperity at 8:20 AM on February 17, 2014

Len Acklands book Making a Real Killing is also a great treatment of the subject.
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:22 AM on February 17, 2014

You know, you can get a used Geiger counter for $100 or less if ever you don't believe what you're being told about radiation.

maniabug, physical security is much, much easier than digital security. Expensive, but still much easier. Unless you're trying to do something stupid like secure a several thousand mile long perimeter, anyway. Obviously, you do have to actually provide security, unlike what Rummy had our Army do in Iraq with the Iraqi government's high explosives—leave them completely unsecured and unmonitored so the insurgents could steal it all and use it against us.

Base idiocy is the biggest risk in physical security. And apparently in the management of nuclear production facilities. I don't think negligence is quite a strong enough word for what Dow and Rockwell did at Rocky Flats. Pondcrete would probably have worked very well, had they actually made it with a repeatable (and tested) formula and not stored it in a completely idiotic manner. I suspect the veil of secrecy surrounding our nuclear weapons program had a strong hand in allowing them to get away with what they were doing and keeping oversight limited.

One of the reasons I still think nuclear power is a reasonable thing is that we already have an enormous stockpile of enriched uranium and plutonium. We have to do something with it after all.
posted by wierdo at 8:39 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Base idiocy is the biggest risk in physical security

of which there is plenty in our national nuclear stock-keepers
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:48 AM on February 17, 2014

Wow. I am fascinated by criticality accidents. To me, it seems to be one of the hardest parts of radioactive materials handling, especially during a manufacturing process.

No kidding. It's completely foreign to how we think about whether something is safe or not. With criticality, the shape of the material can cause a hazard. Just pouring a solution with radioactive materials into a new container can cause a criticality accident. And even if you have a safe shape, you can take some other material that might seen completely innocuous and put it near the safely-shaped object, and suddenly it becomes very unsafe if it happens to be a neutron reflector. It's totally unlike normal experience with hazardous things.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:45 AM on February 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Indeed. But when the government decides it wants to keep people out of a place, it can do a pretty decent job, if it wants to. (Area 51 being a prime example)

The drown it in a bathtub crowd is definitely not helpful to that end.
posted by wierdo at 9:48 AM on February 17, 2014

BTW, in case you haven't heard some history regarding Rocky Flats, the only factory in the USA that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons and situated just upwind from a pretty big city (Denver), this place was managed so poorly that the FBI had to more or less invade the place to figure out what was going on. Rocky Flats shut down shortly after the subsequent (and still secret) grand jury trial. What a country.
posted by kozad at 10:19 AM on February 17, 2014

If anyone is interested in more primary-source interviews with people involved with Rocky Flats (workers, managers, regulators, protestors, etc.), one of the sources for Full Body Burden was a special collection of over 150 interviews that are part of the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Carnegie Library in Boulder, CO. Most of the interviews are available online, with both audio and transcripts. You can also find video of several of the interviews on Youtube.

Full disclosure: my mother is the program manager for the Maria Rogers Oral History Program.
posted by JiBB at 10:29 AM on February 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow. I am fascinated by criticality accidents. To me, it seems to be one of the hardest parts of radioactive materials handling, especially during a manufacturing process.

This document does a great job of describing, in detail, just about every criticality accident ever:

A Review of Criticality Accidents
posted by waxboy at 10:39 AM on February 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

For a few years, I worked with some former Rocky Flats folks. We had plenty of opportunity to chat about non-classified stuff.

I strongly recommend not living in the immediate area, downstream, or downwind.
posted by underflow at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2014

about a decade or so ago, because I had maintained relevant security clearances from a prior government contract, I interviewed there for a 2-year position working on the shutdown project. I ultimately turned down the position for a better offer that was closer to my house, but more specifically the people I talked to and the place itself really creeped me out for reasons I still cannot entirely articulate.

also there was a push about 5 years ago from some local groups to open part of the area to recreational hikers / cyclists, and I was like o_O
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:55 PM on February 17, 2014

Thanks everyone for fleshing this out so nicely with additional sources. I was surprised not to find other posts on the matter and kind of jumped out of the gate and being brought to tears hearing the author's story in detail (my wife is reading the book, my turn next) and then later in the day my wife asked me what I thought and I just started blubbering about how I always knew America was a fucked up country like all of the others, better in some ways, worse in others, always imperfect, of course it is, but growing up on stories of Soviet neglect in Chernobyl and the sunken nuclear ships and so forth, it really hit home to have that "what a country poisoning the shit out of me" moment. I mean the whole world is an experiment but this is a pretty visceral experiment. This land would be condemned completely if it wasn't already developed and there wasn't some capitalist-pleasing incentive to use it. They found a bad place to do this, did it poorly, brought more people into it, and as we see with soldiers who return from combat to receive shitty care, many of these people thought they were doing god's work making these god-awful fucking theromonuclear blasting caps and fine, I'm OK with them feeling that way -- just do right by them when they get hideous cancers later on rather than stonewalling. But why admit fault and open the floodgates when you can stonewall or quietly settle, case by case.

This shit freaked me out big time yesterday after hearing the talk. I'll have to really delve into the Grand Jury report because she made a pretty big deal about it being locked up and sealed and I'm wondering if she's aware of its ostensible presence on the internet.

It's one of those things you're always aware of but just cognitively pack away every time your high school friends joke about it and you see the "Three Eyed Fish" on the Simpsons, ha ha! Meanwhile the lake a mile up the road was fucking contaminated by a plutonium plant and drinking water is coming from it.

I've always been the guy who is obsessed with stories of corporate or government malfeasance and neglect and deception and somehow never really got much into learning about the holy shit facility just up the road. There's something weird about how it feels somewhat distant from the Arvada neighborhoods I grew up in despite being absurdly close. It's tucked away far enough away on service roads to give that distant "oh that's just Rocky Flats" feeling.

I definitely recommend reading that grand jury report, it's pretty absurd. I wonder why the Wikipedia article on "Standley Lake" doesn't mention the contamination incident.
posted by lordaych at 1:59 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

That push to open part of the area and create a "refuge" with bike trails and such is still happening (meanwhile there are 1,300 "hot acres" nearby never to be set foot on again, which were flooded recently with a 500-year massacre flood), and we're talking about digging up and building some nice highway through some of the crappier parts further north. That should scatter a fucking shit ton of plutonium that will hover in the air for years.
posted by lordaych at 2:01 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

asperity, the cynical side of me feels like they figured, hey, let's put it here, it's kind of in the middle of the country, it'll be buffered away from California, and the contamination will just sort of get blown around and dispersed deepwater-horizon style and everyone will be OK, it's a big sky! And if Colorado residents experience a little more cancer due to the radiation, why, they're already exposed to uranium, radium, radon gas, and cosmic X-rays moreso than the rest of the country, so it'll all just fall under that umbrella of "sux to be u." I always had kind of a smug feeling that Colorado was one of the best places in the world to live in terms of natural disasters and menaces like neurotoxic death snakes and the like. Meh.
posted by lordaych at 2:05 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

what I also don't understand is how they can either legally or in good faith sell uber-expensive lots to the yuppie recreational set in the Candelas development. It's *right there*. that seems... dodgy at best.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:13 PM on February 17, 2014

Wow, JiBB, that inteview with Jacque Brever is pretty sobering.
posted by tss at 2:19 PM on February 17, 2014

the cynical side of me feels like they figured, hey, let's put it here, it's kind of in the middle of the country

In fairness to them (not that the people responsible for this really deserve it), this region is also where the mining happens. It did make some sense not to transport it all that far before processing, and the metro area has done a fair bit of expansion to meet the site since it started production -- but then, that wasn't being discouraged as it should have been. And still isn't.

I always had kind of a smug feeling that Colorado was one of the best places in the world to live in terms of natural disasters and menaces like neurotoxic death snakes and the like.

As a New Orleans native, I'm always ready to reel off reasons that ain't nowhere safe from catastrophe. At the very least, eventually the Yellowstone Caldera's gonna get us all.
posted by asperity at 2:21 PM on February 17, 2014

Maybe they were mining uranium and such but they weren't producing plutonium, the uber killer. My understanding is that all plutonium was trucked in from various breeder reactors across the country so a central location kinda makes sense if you don't want to set up next to a single breeder "only" yielding 500 pounds per year.
posted by lordaych at 3:17 PM on February 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

lonefrontranger, land developers have been absolutely wretched during this whole process. Prospective buyers used to be warned if they wanted to live within five miles. The developers ended that forcefully. When your options are "acknowledge atrocity, accept immense costs and responsibility and condemn a huge parcel of land including residences" or "blow it off look the other way," a third option of "fuck it, go crazy stupid it's safe yo" makes a sick sense.
posted by lordaych at 3:21 PM on February 17, 2014

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