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Rocky Flats cleanup contract called model for future federal efforts

Officials said building financial incentives for speed and performance into contract paid off.

The just-completed cleanup of a plutonium pit-production facility in Colorado should serve as a model for future U.S. cleanup work, senators and officials said at a committee hearing Tuesday.

Of particular importance to completing the Rocky Flats project on a tight schedule, said the officials and lawmakers, were financial incentives for speed and performance built into the Energy Department's contract with Kaiser-Hill Co.

"This contract was clearly the flagship in being innovative in this approach," Assistant Energy Secretary James Rispoli said at the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

Witnesses drew attention to 1995 estimates that the cleanup would take 70 years and cost $35 billion. The United States contracted with Kaiser-Hill in 2000 to clean up Rocky Flats, and the company declared the project finished last month at a cost of $7 billion.

The cleanup involved removing the site's remaining plutonium, as well as nuclear and other waste; decontaminating and demolishing buildings; and decontaminating groundwater and soil.

"Few believed that they would be alive when the site was finally cleaned up," said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., speaking as a witness at the hearing.

Kaiser-Hill managers and workers responded to incentives for good work and for keeping on schedule, witnesses said. They stressed the importance of worker "buy-in" - employees' belief in the importance of the job, and their acceptance of cleanup employment as temporary - and of local and state governments' willingness to agree to "accelerated" planning approaches forgoing certain notifications for work that was to be conducted at the plant.

"The community viewed Rocky Flats as a greater asset gone than it did as a job provider," said Kaiser-Hill Chief Executive Officer Nancy Tuor.

The site is now being turned into a wildlife refuge, an approach that has drawn environmentalists' ire because it can mean allowing higher contamination levels to remain than if the site were to be used for purposes such as housing or development.

Tuor said high standards were enforced with the future wildlife-refuge workers in mind. "It has literally been turned from an environmental liability to an asset for the community," she said.

"The site has been returned to the way it was before plutonium production at Rocky Flats began," added Allard, citing radiation levels that now reflect only standard background radiation.

Senators were effusive in praising the job done at Rocky Flats, which Allard called "one of the Department of Energy's greatest achievements." Lawmakers and witnesses said the project should serve as a model for other Energy Department nuclear cleanups, such as those at Hanford in Washington state and Savannah River in South Carolina.

"I am very pleased to hold it up, because it does set forth something that can be done," said committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

"I wish you would get a lot more notoriety in the country, because all we hear about is, 'We can't clean up radiation, therefore we should just give up,'" Domenici said.