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Final Project: Rocky Flats Plant

Bryan Knisely

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December 12, 2017



























During the
Cold War the United States rapidly grew their nuclear weapons program to keep
up with the Soviet Union. To support the need of the nuclear weapons program
the Rocky Flats Plant was built to create trigger mechanism for the nuclear
weapons. As the Cold War came to an end, the phase of stocking up on nuclear
weapons ended and the plant was no longer need so it closed down. A few years
before the plant closed the plant was placed on the National Priorities List to
clean up all of the nuclear and organic waste.



In 1952 the
Rocky Flats Plant started to help support the rapid development of the United
States nuclear weapons program (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2017).
While the plant was still actively producing nuclear triggers for nuclear
weapons the government placed the plant and surrounding land on the National Priorities
List (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2017). The plant was finally taken
out of service in 1993 by the secretary of energy (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency 2017). During the forty-one years of service the plant had a
couple of problems which lead to the contamination of the environment. In 1957
a fire caused plutonium to leak out and contaminated other building along with
the environment (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2017). Also, an oil drum
leaked plutonium and other organic solvents into the environment (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2017). Another fire broke out in 1969 causing
more plutonium to be released into the environment (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency 2017). In 1973, tritium was found in the water at Great
Western Reservoir which came from a leak at the plant (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency 2017). After the plant was closed it started the long
clean-up process and once that was complete the site has been closely monitored
to keep it on the right path for recovery.



Just five
years after the Rocky Flats Plant was activated the first problem happened with
a fire starting in building 771 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2017).
The fire was so bad that the plutonium contaminated parts of Denver. (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2017). Figure
1 shows what parts of Denver were exposed and what the cancer risks are
from the exposed plutonium from the fire in 1957.  The next problem for the plant came when
plutonium and organic solvents leaked out of an oil drum in 1967 (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2017). Another major catastrophe that hit the
Rocky Flats Plant was when a massive fire started in a glovebox in building 776
which spread to hundreds of other gloveboxes in the same building and
gloveboxes in building 777 which happened in 1969 (U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency 2017).  The next problem came
along in 1973 when fifty to one hundred curies of tritium was found in the
water of the Great Western Reservoir (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2017). All of these problems came up when while the plant was still active.
When the plant was closed down several other problems came up. The first
problem that was what to do with about twenty-one tons of radioactive material like
uranium, americium, and plutonium (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006).
The next problem after the plant shut down was what to do with all 800 of the
buildings and tools inside of them used for making trigger mechanisms (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2006). Another problem found was that all of
the ground water around the Rocky Flats site had been contaminated (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2006). Two landfills were found on the Rocky
Flats site and both of them needed to be properly cleaned up (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2006). The land where all of the buildings were
built also was severely contaminated so it became a problem once everything was
demolished. All of these problems at show that the Rocky Flats Plant has
polluted the soil, groundwater, surface water, and the atmosphere.  


Figure 1: Areas Affected by 1957
Fire at Rocky Flats Plant


Cleanup Efforts:

efforts started while the Rocky Flats Plant was still actively producing trigger
mechanisms for nuclear weapons. The first major clean up happened in 1968 when
the area around the leaky oil drum was cleaned up by removing the contaminated
substances and covering the area with asphalt to contain the residual
contamination (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2017). The rest of the
clean-up efforts came once the plant was shut down. The first priority of clean
up was removing all radioactive material to another site to be processed (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency 2006). Once the material was taken care of the
next project was to decontaminate and remove all of the buildings and other
objects on the site (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). To deal with
the problems of contaminated groundwater four treatment systems were installed
(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). The landfill problems were solved
by covering both of them and one of the groundwater treatments systems was
installed at one of the landfill sites (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2006). Also, quite a bit of soil that was contaminated was removed and properly
disposed of at an offsite facility (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006).
Most of the pollution problems at the Rocky Flats Plant have been cleaned up or
are currently still being cleaned up. Figure
2 shows that what the site looks like at the beginning of clean up, right
after all the buildings have been torn down, and a couple of years after the
complete cleanup was completed.


Figure 2: Before, During, and After


Effectiveness of

cleanup efforts have been successful. Twenty-one tons of radioactive material
was removed and along with all of the 800 different buildings at the Rocky
Flats Plant being decontaminated and properly disposed of (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency 2006). About 1.5 million cubic meters of contaminated soil
and waste was removed from the site (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
2006). As of 2006 the four ground water treatment systems have cleaned over 16
million gallons of water (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). The
surface water problems are getting better as shown in Figure 3 with the amount of uranium in the surface water staying
under the EPA’s requirement for safe drinking water. After looking at the latest
five-year review about the Rocky Flats Plant it shows that the area is doing
well with no real concerns.


Figure 3: Amount of Uranium in
Surface Water



The Rocky Flats Plant was very helpful for the United States
during the Cold War. But it did come at a price with a few incidents harming
the environment while the plant was active along with major problems found
after the plant was decommissioned. Thankfully several government agencies were
paying attention to what has happened over the forty-one-year history of the
plant so they knew exactly how to clean up the plant. All of the measures that
were taken to clean up the plant have been working well and there are no new
concerns for the area.



during, and after cleanup of Rocky Flat Plant. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10,
2017, from


Cancer Risk for the Laborer from the 1957 Fire Digital image. (n.d.).
Retrieved December 10, 2017, from


POC Gaging
Station WALPOC: Total Uranium Water Quality (9/1/11 – 1/1/17) Digital image.
(2017, June). Retrieved December 10, 2017, from


Environmental Protection Agency. (2017, June 6). Fourth Five-Year Review Report for the Rocky Flats Site Jefferson
County, Colorado PDF. Denver: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Environmental Protection Agency. (2006, September 29). Preliminary Close Out Report PDF. Denver: U.S Environmental
Protection Agency.

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