Early and under budget

Kaiser-Hill says physical work done at Rocky Flats

ROCKY FLATS - There was no local lunch crowd Thursday in what they call "Building 93," the former Rocky Flats payroll office now better known as the Rocky Flats Lounge on the state highway of the same number.

"Normally I'm slinging cheeseburgers and fries," said Melode Mohrman, a bartender there. "Today not one of them is in."

The work at Rocky Flats was done. Kaiser-Hill Co., the U.S. Department of Energy's lead contractor on cleanup of the former nuclear-weapons plant south of Boulder, declared its physical work complete Thursday morning. It is the first-ever cleanup of a nuclear-weapons plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy has 90 days to ask for touch-ups, and state and federal

Rocky Flats
U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Arvada, commemorates the end of cleanup operations on Thursday from the center of what was once the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Beside him, Doug Young, district policy manager for U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, keeps a poster-sized photograph of the former site from blowing away. Beauprez's wife, Claudia Beauprez, and Udall watch. Sammy Dallal/Daily Camera

regulators will be going through reams of paperwork for the better part of a year. But Joseph Legare, a DOE manager at Rocky Flats, said he didn't expect much action.

"There may be some punch-list items, but I think there are going to be no surprises," Legare said. "We have worked so closely with them, we know what they know."

It has been 10 years and millions of manual-labor hours since Kaiser-Hill took on the task of cleaning up the Superfund site eight miles south of Boulder. There was so much to scrub, initial government estimates pegged the effort as a 70-year, $36 billion slog. Due to a combination of focused work, creativity and collaboration with local, state and federal officials, Kaiser-Hill finished the job in a fraction of that time and at a cost of $7 billion.

For its work, the company will earn an incentive fee worth more than $500 million. It amounts to about 8 percent of the project cost, and Kaiser-Hill has earmarked $100 million of the windfall for bonuses to salaried and hourly workers on the cleanup.

"I think the government got a pretty good return on investment," Legare said.

The bomb factory

Rocky Flats, a 385-acre compound with 800 buildings and 6,000 workers during its peak production years, was an industrial city, complete with fire department and sewage-treatment plant.

Between 1952 and 1989, the plant cranked out an estimated 70,000 plutonium bomb cores. Many of these detonators - each packing the punch of the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki - form the heart of the hydrogen weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Amid a Cold War arms race, production far outweighed environmental concerns. There were chemical spills and catastrophic fires, and seeping radioactive solutions dried and blew in the wind. When an FBI raid shut Rocky Flats down in 1989, no one imagined that production never would restart. Twenty-one tons of plutonium remained in limbo, and floods of toxins corroded massive tanks and miles of process piping.

Rocky Flats aerial shot - 1988
An aerial view of Rocky Flats in 1988. Camera file photo

All but a tiny fraction of it is gone. What was Rocky Flats is an open expanse of surprisingly hilly, rough earth commingled with straw to aid plant growth. Some of it, where the seeds of native grasses have had months or years to grow, already looks native. It is as if Kaiser-Hill returned Rocky Flats to the earth and scattered its seeded remnants with hay.

It is only an impression. Jerry Long, the Kaiser-Hill manager in charge of shipping waste from the site, said enough radioactive waste was sent to New Mexico, Nevada and Utah to fill a 90-mile-long train plus a 575-mile-long caravan of 18-wheelers.

The last load has left. Long said he himself was driving out Thursday evening for the next cleanup, at DOE's Hanford Site in Washington.

Critics remain

Some feel Long and Kaiser-Hill are leaving sooner than they should.

"As far as the cleanup, we feel that a lot of incredible work has been done, and a lot of shortcuts have been made at the expense of the community," said Erin Hamby, Rocky Flats coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. "We still maintain we didn't get the best cleanup, the most effective cleanup or the most financially responsible cleanup."

Hamby cited in particular the agreement between regulators and DOE allowing deeply buried contamination to remain in exchange for lower plutonium thresholds in surface soils.

David Shelton, vice president for environmental management for Kaiser-Hill, said the deal turned out to be good for the community. For example, less than one-10th of a gram of plutonium remains in the Building 371 basement slab and walls, he said, and it's locked in concrete and buried more than 30 feet deep. Workers spent months decontaminating and sealing the building, to the point that protective clothing was no longer required.

Flats 371 cleanup, April 2005
Wanda Hood puts the lid on a 55-gallon drum filled with contaminated waste from Rocky Flats in April. Mark Leffingwell/Camera file photo

"You could walk around the entire building before it was demolished," Shelton said.

He said the same was the case for Building 771 - another infamously contaminated plutonium-recovery building.

Len Ackland, a University of Colorado environmental journalism professor and author of the book "Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West," said he remains concerned that DOE wants the memory of Rocky Flats to disappear with the physical plant. But he characterized Kaiser-Hill's work on the cleanup as "very impressive."

"There are questions. There are uncertainties," Ackland said. "But if you look at the large scale of the cleanup operation, I think you have to credit them for doing a pretty good job."

Recipe for success

Kaiser-Hill gave a news briefing Thursday afternoon, in the middle of the former industrial area. Those present, particularly those who hadn't recently seen the site, were agog.

"Is my jaw still open? This is so phenomenal," said U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Arvada, surveying the emptiness.

"Can you believe it?" said U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, who had toured it the previous day.

David Abelson, executive director of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, said there were many reasons for the cleanup's success. Local communities focused cleanup priorities on so-called "pathways" - where wind or water potentially could transport trace contamination - and let Kaiser-Hill leave basements in the ground.

"We changed what to clean up and why," Abelson said.

Abelson said the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act of 2001, introduced by Udall and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Loveland, also was instrumental. It defined the site's future use and, by extension, the amount of tolerable residual contamination. That turned out to be an increased lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 200,000 or less for a full-time refuge worker.

But, Ableson said, Kaiser-Hill's management and workers were largely to credit.

In the cleanup, Kaiser-Hill employed former production workers who knew the plant and its risks intimately. As many as 5,000 worked on the cleanup at its peak.

Line workers proved to be a key source of ideas for taming the cleanup quickly and without a death or serious injury. Kaiser-Hill spokesman John Corsi pointed to such examples as using chemical processes to reduce the radioactivity of more than 1,450 glove boxes. That meant the bus-sized hulks could be shipped without cutting them into small pieces.

In another instance, rather than cut apart a 150-ton press, workers loaded it on a truck and coated it with the same spray-on plastic used in pickup-truck beds, Corsi said. The Department of Transportation approved it as a shipping container.

Chris Henderson, of Littleton, worked himself out of a job three months ago. He had been on the Rocky Flats cleanup for 13 years, most recently as foreman of a crew in Building 371.

Henderson said he and his colleagues were proud of what they had accomplished. He said such creativity and efficiency on a cleanup that "didn't seem possible at first" was in part due to workers' desire to minimize their own time at the site.

"Every day you're in there, you're taking a risk," he said.

Henderson also credited Kaiser-Hill management for their willingness to turn bottom-up ideas into top-down processes used across the site.

Henderson said he is considering a move to another site that CH2M Hill, the parent company of Kaiser-Hill, is cleaning up now, although his wife is in nursing school and his children, 13 and 11, are settled here. Regardless, he probably won't be stopping by the Rocky Flats Lounge anytime soon.

There, bartender Ben MacDougall sipped a beer as he waited for customers Thursday.

"We're the neighborhood bar without a neighborhood," MacDougall said. "We're definitely without a neighborhood now."