Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

An engineer’s view of Building 371, Rocky Flats’ most expensive failure

In Democracy, Plutonium, Rocky Flats, Uncategorized on October 31, 2012 at 1:07 am

Thomas Bullock’sDiary of a Cold War Patriot (Smashwords, Inc., 2011, available on line at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74199) narrates the career of a retired nuclear engineer who was involved in several projects at Rocky Flats when he worked for Parsons Corp., an engineering firm located in Pasadena, CA. One project that actually played a role in the end of production at Rocky Flats was the effort to correct design problems that plagued Bldg. 371. Bldg. 371, which opened in 1981, was intended as a “state of the art” replacement for the outmoded and quite dangerous Bldg.771, the plant’s original plutonium pit fabrication facility. The plutonium workhorse at Rocky Flats, Bldg. 771 opened in 1952. It was the location of the disastrous fire of September 11, 1957, that resulted in the largest single release of plutonium to the external environment.

Bullock calls Bldg. 371 “a $250 million white elephant” (that’s 1980 dollars). Anyone who has seen Dark Circle, a documentary about Rocky Flats, may recall a scene where dignitaries from Washington were on hand at Rocky Flats for the dedication of a new building. The film shows a robot moving forward to cut a ribbon to signify readiness of the new facility. The robot malfunctioned before it did its job and the ribbon fell to the floor. This scene was the perfect unintended metaphor for Bldg. 371, for very soon after startup the building became contaminated throughout. Plutonium was also being lost in its complex system of pipes and tubes. In 1984 the DOE ordered the building shut down. Bullock was brought in from the outside to lead a $60 million ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the building back into operation. Thus the newest, most robust, most expensive building in Rocky Flats history proved unable to do the work for which it was created.

Not long after the June 1989 FBI raid on Rocky Flats to gather evidence of environmental lawbreaking at the plant, the Secretary of Energy announced that production had been “temporarily” halted at the facility. The DOE soon proposed the “Plutonium Recovery Modification Project” (PRMP),  a $650 million plan to renovate Bldg. 371. This project was the lynchpin for resumed production at Rocky Flats. Activists, some of whom had engaged in repeated civil disobedience to protest bomb-making at Rocky Flats, were suddenly lobbying Congress not to to fund the PRMP.  In 1990 Congress, following the lead of the Colorado congressional delegation, voted against the PRMP,  a decision that made resumed production impossible. In 1992 the Rocky Flats mission was changed from production to cleanup.

Depleted Uranium Work at Rocky Flats: An example of the “Black Budget”

In Democracy, Environment, Public Health, Rocky Flats on October 30, 2012 at 12:55 am

Secrets abound at Rocky Flats, some more secret than others. One such was activity to develop depleted uranium armor plating for U.S. Army tanks. Initially deployed in West Germany during the 1980s, tanks with DU armor became notable for their use in the two U.S. wars in Iraq. This particular project was totally unknown to outsiders like myself who followed activities at Rocky Flats very closely. I learned of the existence of this program from Thomas Bullock’s Diary of a Cold War Patriot (Smashwords, Inc., 2011, available on line at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74199). This book narrates the career of a retired nuclear engineer, who, when employed by Parsons Corp., an engineering firm located in Pasadena, CA, was involved in several projects at Rocky Flats, including the DU work. As mentioned above, this was a “black budget” item, that is, one not included in the regular publicly available DOE budget line, one for which even the existence of the budget was totally classified.

Bullock does not say whether the DU work at Rocky Flats also included coating bullets, shells and missiles with DU. Both forms of DU armor, coating for projectiles and coating for tanks, created radioactive contamination in Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq and later Afghanistan and other locations. U.S. soldiers in DU armored tanks that were targeted and hit often were exposed to radiation in easily internalized aerosol form. Of course, DU also contaminated populations where it was used, including totally innocent civilians. Some critics called DU the “agent orange” of Iraq. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “The fact that DU is aerosolized on impact with its target and is transformed into small dust particles capable of being carried by the wind may threaten air, ground and water resources, which all may become long-term repositories for DU. Long term impact is especially important considering the 4.5 billion year half life of DU.”

Bullock reports that once the DU tank armament developed at Rocky Flats was ready for application, the work was shifted to the Idaho National Engineering Lab, where it was housed in the enormous building originally built there for the failed effort to create a nuclear powered airplane. This facility was large enough that tanks could be delivered to a place where they could be out of sight while being coated with DU armor.  He doesn’t say whether the Idaho work was also “black budget.”

In 1993, after the change of mission at Rocky Flats from production to cleanup, for a brief period DOE pushed what was called the “Rocky Flats Conversion Project.” a name that they must have expected to resonate with anti-nuclear activists who for two decades had been calling for conversion of work at Rocky Flats from socially destructive to socially useful activity. The Rocky Flats Conversion Project was to be operated by a commercial company headquarter in Oak Ridge, TN. Their intent was to do DU work of an unspecified nature. They wanted to take over one building at Rocky Flats that happened to contain a very large, very heavy rolling metal press, capable of creating large sheets of DU at varying thicknesses. For a brief period, this Conversion Project received a good bit of attention. But within a matter of a few months, without much public notice, the project was suddenly de-funded. It disappeared like a bad dream, never to be mentioned again. I of course now wonder if the Rocky Flats Conversion Project was related to DU armaments.