Rocky Flats nuclear cleanup effort finally on track

GOLDEN, Colo.-After years of struggle, the effort to clean up the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant-located on a 6,500-acre reserve 15 miles northwest of Denver-finally appears to be on track, thanks to a revamped management structure and the use of innovative contracting techniques.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rocky Flats seemed to be a hopeless case. Established in 1953 at the height of the Cold War, the plant churned out plutonium triggers for four decades. But it also spawned numerous contamination problems that were compounded by long stretches of mismanagement by federal contractors.

In 1989, the FBI raided Rocky Flats as part of an environmental investigation of Rockwell International, the company that had managed the site since 1975. Rockwell eventually pled guilty to 10 federal counts and paid $18.5 million in fines. In 1992, after the Cold War ended, President George H.W. Bush announced that Rocky Flats would cease operations permanently.

With the plant shut down, the Energy Department was stuck with cleaning up 12.9 metric tons of plutonium and sizable quantities of beryllium, asbestos, lead and myriad other toxic chemicals. These materials were stored throughout a 365-acre complex that included 100 major buildings and 700 other structures.

"A cleanup of this magnitude and complexity had never been attempted or accomplished anywhere in the world," said Patrick Etchart, an Energy spokesman.

For several years after its closure, observers say, Rocky Flats was beset by suffocating bureaucracy and halfhearted management. "In the early 1990s, relations with the nearby communities and the regulators were pretty rough," said David Shelton, vice president for environmental systems and stewardship for Kaiser-Hill Co. LLC, which took over Rocky Flats' management contract in 1995. "Under the regulatory agreement then in place, milestones were being missed, with no hope of recovery. A lot of studies were going on, but no real cleanup was being done. People were getting pretty frustrated."

The situation began to change once Energy and Kaiser-Hill agreed to a creative governance structure. Kaiser-Hill's contract junked many of the paperwork requirements that typified previous contracts, and called instead for tangible progress in cleaning up the site. Kaiser-Hill would see its payments pegged to such indicators as worker safety, its speed in finishing jobs and its ability to stay within budget. The two successive contracts signed by Kaiser-Hill are valued at $7.6 billion. The contracts specify that the cleanup should be complete by Dec. 15, 2006.

Len Ackland, a University of Colorado journalism professor and author of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), said that Rocky Flats is finally on the right track. "For the first time, you have as the head of the DOE office and the head of the contractor, people who are environmental specialists," Ackland said. "Before, you had bomb-builders posing as environmental specialists."

Another key step, participants say, was establishing effective cooperation among federal, state, local and private sector stakeholders, especially on such issues as jurisdiction and oversight. An agreement signed by the key parties "forced everybody around the site to develop a vision. Before that, people were groping," said Doug Young, an aide to Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., whose district includes Rocky Flats and who has worked with his Republican colleague, Sen. Wayne Allard, to turn Rocky Flats into a wildlife refuge.

The focus on achieving concrete cleanup results has helped ease relations between site managers and two groups that had spent years fighting each other: liberal activists in nearby Boulder, Colo., who had long opposed either the site's war mission or its environmental record, or both, and Rocky Flats' 4,000-strong, unionized workforce, which celebrated its Cold War achievements and feared for its long-term job security.

"Once we started knocking down walls and shipping waste and nuclear materials offsite, it started changing the workforce's mind-set," said John Schneider, an assistant manager at Rocky Flats. "They suddenly understood that their mission was not to wait for a call from the president to build more triggers--it was to close the site."

Kaiser-Hill has also taken unconventional approaches to keeping the project ahead of schedule and on budget. For instance, officials decided to start tearing down low-contamination buildings on the site's periphery sooner than planned. By so doing, they reduced the site's security and maintenance perimeter, thus saving money.

"Elsewhere, cleanups have generally gone for the high-risk stuff first," said Frank Gibbs, a deputy project manager with Kaiser-Hill. "But the managers here brainstormed and decided that if you did that at Rocky Flats, by time the plutonium was gone, there would be too much work at the back end to finish the job by 2006. It's a unique approach to decommissioning a nuclear site, but I think this will become the new standard."

While many of Rocky Flats' dangerous materials have by now been moved to facilities in Tennessee, New Mexico and Nevada, much work remains. Officials warn that while radioactive materials usually attract the most public attention, other more common chemicals, such as cleaning and degreasing solvents, pose equal challenges.

In some of the more contaminated buildings, "you have every hazard in the world," said Mark Ferri, a Kaiser-Hill vice president. "From a technical standpoint, it's a lot of pretty basic operations. But when you combine it all from a strategic and tactical point of view, it's cutting-edge."

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