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.


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