Rocky Flats Plant

Rocky Flats Plant

Rocky Flats Plant
Location Jefferson County, Colorado
Nearest city Arvada, Colorado
Area 175.8 acres (71.1 ha)
Built 1952
Governing body Federal
NRHP Reference # 97000377[1]
Added to NRHP May 19, 1997
Worker holding plutonium "button" in glove box
Precision plutonium foundry mold, 1959
Room damaged by 1969 Rocky Flats Fire
Control panel, Critical Mass Laboratory, 1970

The Rocky Flats Plant was a United States nuclear weapons production facility near Denver, Colorado that operated from 1952 to 1992. It was under the control of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) until 1977, when the AEC was replaced by the Department of Energy (DOE). Weapons production was temporarily halted in 1989 after FBI agents raided the facility. Operators of the plant later pleaded guilty to criminal violations of environmental law. The entire site is now the combined Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and the actively managed DOE Office of Legacy Management "Rocky Flats, Colorado, Site", encompassing the heavily contaminated original weapons production area.


  • History 1
    • 1950s 1.1
    • 1960s 1.2
    • 1970s 1.3
    • 1980s 1.4
      • Investigation by FBI and EPA 1.4.1
      • Withheld records 1.4.2
    • 1990s 1.5
    • 2000s 1.6
  • See also 2
  • Notes 3
  • External links 4



Following World War II, the United States began production of nuclear weapons. The AEC chose the Dow Chemical Company to manage the bomb production facility. A 4 sq mi (10 km2) site about 15 mi (24 km) 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. Contemporary news reports stated that the site would not be used to produce nuclear bombs.[2]

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 to 27 buildings.

On September 11, 1957, a plutonium fire occurred in one of the gloveboxes used to handle radioactive materials, igniting the combustible rubber gloves and plexiglas windows of the box. Metallic plutonium is a fire hazard and pyrophoric; under the right conditions it may ignite in air at room temperature. The accident resulted in the contamination of Building 771 and the release of plutonium into the atmosphere, and caused US $818,600 in damage. An incinerator for plutonium-contaminated waste was installed in Building 771 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 1960s also brought more contamination to the site. In 1967, 3,500 barrels (560 m3) 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.

May 11, 1969 saw a major fire in a glovebox in Building 776/777.[3] This was the costliest industrial accident ever to 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 fire sprinkler systems and firewalls.


In order to reduce the danger of public contamination and to create a security area around the plant following protests, the United States 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 United States Environmental Protection Agency (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 wastewater runoff to three dams for testing before release into the water system and construction of a reverse osmosis facility to clean up wastewater.

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 Chemical as the contractor for the site. This year also saw local landowners suing for property contamination caused by the plant.

In 1978, 60 protesters belonging to the Rocky Flats Truth Force, or Satyagraha Affinity Group, based in Boulder, Colorado, 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 5,000 US gallons (19,000 L) of oil into sand under the barrels, which was then blown by strong winds as far away as Denver. Radioactivity of the sand at the spill site was measured at 30 million disintegrations per minute per gram (about 220 ppm plutonium in the sand by weight), 15 million times higher than the state standard of two disintegrations per minute.[4]

Dr. Carl Johnson, Jefferson County health director from 1973 to 1981, directed numerous studies on contamination levels and health risks the plant posed to public health. Based on his conclusions, Johnson opposed housing development near Rocky Flats. He was fired. Later studies confirmed many of his findings.[5]

On April 28, 1979, a few weeks after the Three Mile Island accident, a crowd of close to 15,000 protesters assembled at a nearby site.[6][7] 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.


Dark Circle is a 1982 American documentary film that focuses on the Rocky Flats Plant and its plutonium contamination of the area's environment. The film won the Grand Prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and received a national Emmy Award for "Outstanding individual achievement in news and documentary".[8]

Rocky Flats became a focus of protest by peace activists throughout the 1980s. In 1983, a demonstration was organized that brought together 17,000 people who joined hands in an encirclement around the 17-mile (27 km) perimeter of the plant.[9][10]

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 250,000 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 wastewater at the plant. The next year, the site received a National Safety Council Award of Honor for outstanding safety performance.

On August 10, 1987, 320 demonstrators were arrested after they tried to force a one-day shutdown of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.[11]

In 1988, a DOE safety evaluation resulted in a report that was critical of safety measures at the plant. The EPA fined the plant for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) leaks from a transformer. A solid waste form, called pondcrete, was found not to have cured properly and was leaking from containers. A boxcar of transuranic waste from the site was refused entry into Idaho and returned to the plant. Plans to potentially close the plant were released.

In 1989 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.

In August 1989, an estimated 3,500 people turned out for a demonstration at Rocky Flats.[10]

Investigation by FBI and EPA

Insiders at the plant started to covertly inform the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about the unsafe conditions in 1987. Late that year the FBI commenced clandestine flights of 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 via direct measurement, the FBI informed the DOE on June 6, 1989 that they wanted to meet to discuss a potential terrorist threat. When the DOE officers arrived, they were served with a search warrant. Simultaneously, the FBI and EPA raided the facility. They discovered numerous violations of federal anti-pollution laws, including limited[3] contamination of water and soil. In 1992, Rockwell was charged with environmental crimes including violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Water Act. Rockwell pled guilty and paid an $18.5 million fine. This was the largest fine for an environmental crime to that date.

Dubbed "Operation Desert Glow", the DOJ-sponsored raid began at 9 a.m. on June 6, 1989[12] after the FBI got past the DOE's heavily armed, authorized to shoot-to-kill security—whose armament included surface-to-air missiles—under the ruse of providing a terrorist threat briefing and served its search warrant to Dominick Sanchini,[13] Rockwell International's manager of Rocky Flats, who as it happened died the next year in Boulder of cancer.[14][15]

After the June 1989 FBI raid of Rocky Flats, federal authorities used the subsequent grand jury investigation to gather evidence of wrongdoing and then sealed the record. The court allowed the Rocky Flats operators to withhold from the public data about the nature and extent of contamination on and off the site. In October 2006, DOE announced completion of the Rocky Flats cleanup without this information being available.[16]

The FBI raid led to the formation of Colorado's first special grand jury in 1989, the juried testimony of 110 witnesses, reviews of 2,000 exhibits, and ultimately a 1992 plea agreement in which Rockwell admitted to 10 federal environmental crimes and agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines out of its own funds. This amount was less than the company had been paid in bonuses for running the plant as determined by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), and yet was also by far the highest hazardous-waste fine ever; four times larger than the previous record.[17] Due to DOE indemnification of its contractors, without some form of settlement being arrived at between the U.S. Justice Department and Rockwell the cost of paying any civil penalties would ultimately have been borne by U.S. taxpayers. While any criminal penalties allotted to Rockwell would not have been covered, for its part Rockwell claimed that the Department of Energy had specifically exempted them from most environmental laws, including hazardous waste.[18][19][20][21][22][23][24]

Regardless, and as forewarned by the prosecuting U.S. Attorney, Ken Fimberg/Scott,[25] the Department of Justice's stated findings and plea agreement with Rockwell were heavily contested by its own, 23-member special grand jury. Press leaks on both sides—members of DOJ and the grand jury—occurred in violation of secrecy Rule 6(e) regarding grand jury information, a federal crime punishable by a prison sentence. The public contest led to U.S. Congressional oversight committee hearings chaired by Congressman Howard Wolpe, which issued subpoenas to DOJ principals despite several instances of DOJ's refusal to comply. The hearings, whose findings include that the Justice Department had "bargained away the truth",[26] ultimately still did not fully reveal to the public the special grand jury's report, which remains sealed by the DOJ courts.[22][27]

The special grand jury report[28] was nonetheless leaked to Westword. According to its subsequent publications, the Rocky Flats special grand jury had compiled indictments charging three DOE officials and five Rockwell employees with environmental crimes. The grand jury also wrote a report, intended for the public's consumption per their charter, lambasting the conduct of DOE and Rocky Flats contractors for "engaging in a continuing campaign of distraction, deception and dishonesty" and noted that Rocky Flats, for many years, had discharged pollutants, hazardous materials and radioactive matter into nearby creeks and Broomfield's and Westminster's water supplies.[29]

The DOE itself, in a study released in December of the year prior to the FBI raid, had called Rocky Flats' ground water the single greatest environmental hazard at any of its nuclear facilities.[30]

Withheld records

The final contamination levels of Rocky Flats itself as measured by the U.S. government after the Superfund cleanup, and those reported to an impaneled grand jury, are sealed records and have not been reported to the public. Denver-area key leaders in both educating the public and pursuing contamination information that remains withheld by the U.S. Government include Dr. Leroy Brown, a Boulder scientist, retired FBI Special Agent Jon Lipsky,[29] who led the FBI's raid of the Rocky Flats plant to investigate illegal plutonium burning and other environmental crimes, and Wes McKinley, who was the foreman of the grand jury investigation into the operations at Rocky Flats and is today a Colorado State Representative.[18][31][32]

Former grand jury foreman McKinley chronicles his experiences in the 2004 book he co-authored with attorney Caron Balkany, The Ambushed Grand Jury, which begins with an open letter to the U.S. Congress from Special Agent Lipsky:

I am an FBI agent. My superiors have ordered me to lie about a criminal investigation I headed in 1989. We were investigating the US Department of Energy, but the US Justice Department covered up the truth. I have refused to follow the orders to lie about what really happened during that criminal investigation at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Instead, I have told the author of this book the truth. Her promise to me if I told her what really happened was that she would put it in a book to tell Congress and the American people. Some dangerous decisions are now being made based on that government cover-up. Please read this book. I believe you know what needs to happen.[33]


Rockwell International 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 EPA outlined multiyear schedules for environmental restoration studies and remediation activities. 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, due to an order by President G.H.W. Bush, production of submarine-based missiles using the W88 trigger was discontinued, 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.

In 1994 the site was renamed 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 the 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 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, and the Envirocare company facility in Utah, which is now EnergySolutions.


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.[34] In July 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy transferred nearly 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land on the Rocky Flats site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.[35] Surveys of the site reveal 630 species of vascular plants, 76% of which are native.[36] Herds of elk are commonly seen on the site.

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

The site is contaminated with plutonium due to several industrial fires that occurred on the site and other inadvertent releases caused by wind at a waste storage area. The other major contaminant is carbon tetrachloride (CCl4). Both of these substances affected areas adjacent to the site. In addition, there were small releases of beryllium and tritium, as well as dioxin from incineration.[38][39]

Cleanup was declared complete on October 13, 2005. About 1,300 acres (5.3 km2) of the original site, the former industrial area, remains under U.S. DOE Office of Legacy Management control for ongoing environmental monitoring and remediation. On March 14, 2007, DOE, EPA, and CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) entered into the Rocky Flats Legacy Management Agreement (RFLMA). The agreement establishes the regulatory framework for implementing the final remedy for the Rocky Flats site and ensuring the protection of human health and the environment.

In September 2010, after a 20-year legal battle, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a $926 million award in a class-action lawsuit against Dow Chemical and Rockwell International.[40] The three-judge panel said that the jury reached its decision on faulty instructions that incorrectly stated the law. The appeals court tossed the jury verdict and sent the case back to the District Court. According to the Appellate Court, the owners of 12,000 properties in the class-action area had not proved their properties were damaged or that they suffered bodily injury from plutonium that blew onto their properties.[40][41]

See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places.  
  2. ^ "New Atom Plant to be Built". The Pittsburgh Press. March 23, 1951. Retrieved 2 July 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Hobbs, Farrel (2010). An Insider's View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked. CreateSpace.  
  4. ^ Bob Reuteman, "Vindication at last for all who feared Rocky Flats", The Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 2006.
  5. ^ Kristen Iversen (March 10, 2012). "Nuclear Fallout". New York Times. 
  6. ^ Nonviolent Social Movements p. 295.
  7. ^ Headline: Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant / Protest
  8. ^ Dark Circle, DVD release date March 27, 2007, Directors: Judy Irving, Chris Beaver, Ruth Landy. ISBN 0-7670-9304-6.
  9. ^ Headline: Colorado / Anti-Nuclear Demonstration
  10. ^ a b Activists fail to encircle Rocky Flats/ Too few join hands in symbolic protest
  11. ^ "570 Arrested in A-Bomb Protests".  
  12. ^ Siegel, Barry (August 8, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : When Federal Agents Take On a Government Nuclear-Bomb Plant, Lines of Law and Politics Blur, and Moral Responsibility Is Tested".  
  13. ^
  14. ^ Siegel, Barry (August 8, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : When Federal Agents Take On a Government Nuclear-Bomb Plant, Lines of Law and Politics Blur, and Moral Responsibility Is Tested".  
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Siegel, Barry (August 15, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : The Justice Department had negotiated a Rocky Flats settlement, but the grand jury could not keep quiet about what happened there". Los Angeles Times. 
  18. ^ a b Hardesty, Greg (March 29, 2006). "Retired FBI agent helped close nuclear-weapons site".  
  19. ^
  20. ^ Schneider, Keith (March 27, 1992). "U.S. Shares Blame in Abuses at A-Plant".  
  21. ^ Siegel, Barry (August 8, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : When Federal Agents Take On a Government Nuclear-Bomb Plant, Lines of Law and Politics Blur, and Moral Responsibility Is Tested".  
  22. ^ a b Siegel, Barry (August 15, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : The Justice Department had negotiated a Rocky Flats settlement, but the grand jury could not keep quiet about what happened there".  
  23. ^ Wald, Matthew L. (September 23, 1989). "Rockwell Is Giving Up Rocky Flats Plant".  
  24. ^ "U.S. Shares Blame in Abuses at A-Plant".  
  25. ^ Prosecuting U.S. attorney Fimberg changed his last name to Scott after the Rocky Flats deliberations were finalized; see The Ambushed Grand Jury, page 118.
  26. ^ The Ambushed Grand Jury, Chapter 6, page 98.
  27. ^ The Ambushed Grand Jury, Chapter 6, Note 54.
  28. ^ The special grand jury report
  29. ^ a b
  30. ^ Siegel, Barry (August 15, 1993). "Showdown at Rocky Flats : The Justice Department had negotiated a Rocky Flats settlement, but the grand jury could not keep quiet about what happened there".  
  31. ^ "Rocky Flats Nuclear Site Too Hot for Public Access, Citizens Warn".  
  32. ^ Wald, Matthew L. (March 13, 2004). "Book Says U.S. Aides Lied In Nuclear-Arms Plant Case".  
  33. ^ McKinley, Wes; Balkany, Caron (2004). The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed. New York: Apex Press.  
  34. ^ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (January 31, 2007). "Final Rocky Flats Sign Text" (PDF). Retrieved April 19, 2007. 
  35. ^ Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge
  36. ^ Nelson, J. K. (2010). Vascular flora of the Rocky Flats Area, Jefferson County, Colorado, USA. Phytologia 92:2 121.
  37. ^ "Glovebox removal heralds new Flats era".  
  38. ^
  39. ^ "Contaminants Released Surface Water from Rocky Flats". Retrieved September 3, 2011. 
  40. ^ a b "Appeals court tosses jury award in Rocky Flats case".  
  41. ^ Cook, et al. v. Rockwell International Corp., et al., Nos. 08-1224, 08-1226 and 08-1239 (U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit Sept. 3, 2010)

External links

  • Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden
  • Patricia Buffer. "Rocky Flats History" (PDF). Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. Retrieved October 7, 2005.  - PDF
  • "Bomb Production at Rocky Flats: Death Downwind". Retrieved August 13, 2008.  – by Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, 1982.
  • Survey number HAER CO-83 - Rocky Flats Plant
  • A Technically Useful History of the Critical Mass Laboratory at Rocky Flats by Dr. Robert E. Rothe, May 2005
  • Rocky Flats Protesters Reunite
  • "Photography: a year of disobedience". Daniel Publishing Group, Inc. Retrieved April 21, 2008.  - Photographs and narrative of initial protests against the Rocky Flats Plant, 1978–79
  • Rocky Flats before (1995) and after (2005) cleanup.
  • An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked By Farrel D. Hobbs

  • Annotated bibliography on Rocky Flats from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues