On a beautiful morning in May 2003, at the height of the cleanup at Rocky Flats, Randy Sullivan, head of firefighters at the plant, received a message: “A “pyrophoric incident” in Building 371. The newest, largest and most expensive of the plutonium buildings at the plant, 371 was where all the plutonium that remained at the plant after the end of production was taken to to be stabilized and prepared for removal from Rocky Flats to DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina. DOE and cleanup contractor Kaisere-Hill didn’t refer to a fire but to a “pyrophoric event.” Misleading as this is, it was technically accurate. “Pyrophoric” means that a given material — in this case plutonium — ignites spontaneously and bursts into flames when it is exposed to oxygen, which is why all work with plutonium at Rocky Flats was done in an oxygen-free atmosphere inside glove boxes. Now one of the glove boxes three floors below ground in Building 371 was on fire.
The fire was serious, large, hard to control. Workers were exposed. So were the firefighters. I learned about this fire not from anybody at the DOE, EPA or Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, though as a participant in the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement Focus Group I was meeting people from these agencies twice each month in meetings that lasted two-and-a-half to three hours. Neither I nor any of the thirty or so others in the Focus Group learned about this fire shortly after it happened. I learned about it from Kristen Iversen when she was writing Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, published in 2012. Anyone who wants a graphic description of this fire, should read pages 289-298 of her book.
The point of this blog entry is to say that a serious plutonium fire — a fire similar to the ones at Rocky Flats in 1957 and 1969 (there were numerous smaller fires) — happened when the cleanup was nearing completion and concerned people were routinely meeting with government personnel who never said a word about the fire. They were repeating an old pattern, since no one from these agencies told the public about the 1957 and 1969 fires. The story of serious plutonium fires at Rocky Flats was first revealed to the public in 1970 by radiochemist Ed Martell of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
Why weren’t citizens paying close attention to Rocky Flats told about the May 2003 fire immediately after it happened? I don’t know the answer to this question. But I suspect government personnel didn’t want to reveal a serious plutonium exposure problem at Rocky Flats when they were so close to finishing the cleanup and shutting things down. The public might think the place was still dangerous and that they didn’t have things under control.
One lesson from this is that One should remain skeptical about what government personnel say about anything related to Rocky Flats. Verify first, then trust.