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A top U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) official told just half the story when he spoke at a smoothly orchestrated department news conference at Rocky Flats on August 19. Linton Brooks, the undersecretary of energy for national security, cheerfully announced that all weapons-usable plutonium had been shipped from the former nuclear bomb factory near Denver and that the cleanup was on schedule.

This story was eagerly embraced by three members of the Colorado congressional delegation, who shared a portable outdoor stage with Brooks. It was carefully positioned so the sandstone slabs of the foothills served as a scenic backdrop for TV cameras. One by one, Sen. Wayne Allard and Rep. Bob Beauprez, both Republicans, and Democrat Rep. Mark Udall stepped to the podium to laud the plant's workers, contractor Kaiser-Hill Co., and the DOE.

The event conveyed the message that the especially bad plutonium was on its way to a safe resting place far from our backyards and that Rocky Flats could glide toward its happy designated status as a national wildlife refuge in 2006. Nobody mentioned the conservative estimates that more than 100 acres of the 6,500-acre site are so contaminated with plutonium that they will be left out of the refuge. Nobody mentioned that a significant, but still classified, portion of the 14.2 tons of plutonium sitting at the plant when it was forced to shut down in 1989 was sent directly into the U.S. post-Cold War nuclear arsenal. Nobody mentioned that many employees contracted workplace illnesses or that a raging 1969 fire nearly poisoned Denver with radiation. Nobody mentioned, while praising workers for "winning the Cold War," that the weapons produced at Rocky Flats pose a huge risk to humanity.

Also missing from the August 19 hoopla at Rocky Flats was any mention that the DOE, the nation's nuclear weapons builder, had just completed a series of hearings in several states about the best location for "Rocky Flats II."

That isn't the proposed plant's formal, bureaucratic name, of course. Government officials call the new plutonium bomb factory the "Modern Pit Facility." (In nukespeak, the "pit" is a plutonium fission bomb - descended from the type of U.S. bomb that destroyed Nagasaki - that detonates, or "triggers," a much more powerful hydrogen bomb.) Asked about Rocky Flats II after the news conference, Udall said he was not aware of the DOE's plans. He isn't alone. With the exception of a few nuclear-watchdog organizations and citizens in the four states where DOE is considering building the new plant, most Americans are unaware of the department's scheme to construct a $2 billion to $4 billion factory capable of manufacturing as many as 450 plutonium bombs a year.

Amounting to more nuclear warheads than any country except Russia currently possesses, the number is still less than a third of the estimated peak annual production at Rocky Flats during the 37 years it turned out weapons. The numbers, however, are far less important than the fact that Rocky Flats II, like its predecessor, would be the cornerstone for a revived, streamlined U.S. nuclear weapons-production complex. The Bush administration has made clear that the new complex would mainly manufacture "usable" nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities," according to the classified Nuclear Posture Review submitted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Congress in December 2001 and subsequently leaked to the press. The review, which describes itself as a "blueprint" for transforming U.S. military strategy, notes, "A key capability that must be recovered is manufacture of plutonium pits."

The plans for Rocky Flats II are central to the Bush administration's approach to nuclear weapons of mass destruction. On one hand, the administration has mounted a vigorous campaign against the spread of nuclear weapons in the world, with North Korea and Iran currently on the hot seat. Nuclear proliferation constitutes a real threat, despite the administration's exaggeration about an Iraqi nuclear program during its march toward war last fall and winter.

The president does deserve credit for recognizing the danger from long-range nuclear weapons and for reaching agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2002 that each country should reduce its strategic arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,000 deployed weapons by 2012. Each country currently deploys about 8,000 warheads apiece.

Yet, in his September 2002 "National Security Strategy" report, President Bush claimed a U.S. right to pre-emptively attack "terrorists and tyrants" with any means necessary to defeat them. While the first exercise of this controversial pre-emption policy in the attack on Iraq last March did not include the U.S. use of nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has been promoting battlefield nuclear weapons for some time. A joint Pentagon and DOE report in July 2001 suggested that "existing nuclear weapons can be modified" to attack hardened, underground targets. After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the administration stepped up its anti-terrorist rhetoric and its push for "mini-nukes" and "bunker busters" with an explosive power of less than 10 kilotons - the equivalent of 10,000 tons of TNT. "Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities)," according to the Nuclear Posture Review of December 2001.

In April 2002, then DOE national security director Gen. John Gordon told Aerospace Daily that smaller nuclear weapons could be built by using only the primary nuclear charge that acts as the trigger for a thermonuclear explosion. In other words, plutonium bombs, or "primaries" such as those made at Rocky Flats, could be used as stand-alone weapons instead of as detonators for H-bombs. Since major modifications or new warhead designs would most likely require nuclear testing, the administration has also sought to reduce the start-up time for testing once the order is given. But more than anything, newly designed nuclear weapons would benefit from a new manufacturing plant: Rocky Flats II.

Nowadays, the government can't just finance and build Rocky Flats II with no public oversight. Unlike 1951, when the DOE's predecessor - the Atomic Energy Commission - acted behind closed doors to establish Rocky Flats, DOE had to follow a process established by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The act requires federal agencies whose activities may affect environmental quality to prepare a draft and then a final environmental impact statement and obtain public input through hearings and written comments. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham will decide next April whether the new plant should be built and, if so, where.

The DOE has been tiptoeing through the required environmental-impact process since it started a year ago this month. The department, through the quasi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration headed by Linton Brooks, issued a draft impact statement saying it wants to build the Modern Pit Facility at one of five current DOE sites: the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas; Los Alamos, N.M.; Carlsbad, N.M. (WIPP); the Pantex Site near Amarillo, Texas; and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. As required, the impact statement includes two actions the DOE opposes: an upgrade of the plutonium bomb manufacturing facility at Los Alamos or "no action" at all.

The DOE's campaign for Rocky Flats II has depended heavily on obfuscation, economic incentives and limiting the public hearings, which took place last June and July, to Washington, D.C., and the candidate communities. The department's presentations at the meetings stress that plant construction, scheduled to start in 2011, will cost several billion dollars. After the plant begins operating in 2018 with more than 1,000 workers, operating costs will run $200 million to 300 million a year.

Public comments at the hearings varied, according to published accounts. The most intense debate between citizens favoring the plant and those opposing it took place in New Mexico. "Here, the No. 1 issue is jobs, the No. 2 issue is jobs, and the No. 3 issue is jobs," Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest told reporter Michelle Nijhuis, whose lengthy story appeared in High Country News on September 1.

The sentiments expressed in his quote are reminiscent of the thinking surrounding Rocky Flats, as displayed in a front-page Denver Post headline on March 23, 1951: "There's Good News Today: U.S. to Build $45 Million A-Plant Near Denver."

A much different sentiment was felt after the plant was forced to shut down in 1989 and the public became fully aware of the lies, environmental crimes, worker injuries and deaths, and risks to public health characterizing the bomb factory's operation. In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission used claims of "national security" in refusing to comment about the deadly products to be manufactured at Rocky Flats. Today, with more information about nuclear weapons publicly available, the DOE must also rely on techniques in addition to secrecy in making its case for Rocky Flats II.

The department has created a website to explain its rationale for the plant http://www.mpfeis.com, which contains slides used in public meetings. The first slide defines a plutonium pit and then says that "pit aging" will cause some pits in the U.S. stockpile to degrade by 2020. "Planning and design of a (modern pit facility) is a prudent risk-management approach to ensure that the United States can manufacture pits required to support the stockpile," it concludes. The information on the next slide is confusing. It starts with the statement that pits for the stockpile "have not been manufactured" since Rocky Flats was closed in 1989, "making the United States the only nuclear-weapons power without the capability to manufacture replacement plutonium pits." This is followed by this contradictory statement: "However, the first pit that could be certified for use in the stockpile was manufactured in April 2003 as a first step to establish an interim (10-20 pits per year) production capability at Los Alamos in 2007."

The following slide gives two reasons why production at Los Alamos won't meet long-term needs. First, "Capacity: the number of pits required to be manufactured annually to meet future pit needs." Second, "Agility: the capability to change rapidly from production of one pit to another, to simultaneously produce more than one type of pit, and to produce all pit types required for the stockpile."

The definition of plutonium bomb production "agility" on the public presentation slide leaves out words contained in the DOE's draft environmental impact statement. That statement defines agility as including "the flexibility to produce pits of a new design in a timely manner." In light of all the administration's talk about "bunker busters," such new designs would certainly include "usable" nuclear weapons.

Someone who's queasy about the implications of the United States proceeding with a program to make nuclear weapons that are more likely to be fired might be persuaded that Rocky Flats II is necessary if "pit aging" really will make the country unable to maintain its nuclear deterrent. But a July 16 analysis of the subject by the independent Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Maryland concludes that "available evidence in the scientific literature as well as in the appendix to the impact statement itself offer no basis for the stated aging-related concerns."

Rocky Flats II is unnecessary and dangerous, despite the DOE's assurances that the plant will be modern, with better "safety and security design" than the 1950s buildings at Rocky Flats. Still, in the few paragraphs in the DOE environmental impact statement devoted to comparing the old and new plants, one sentence stands out. After explaining that plutonium in some forms ignites spontaneously in air, the statement notes, "It is now recognized that potential for fire initiation cannot totally be eliminated." Caveat emptor, all you communities seeking economic benefits from building nuclear weapons of mass destruction.


Len Ackland is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado-Boulder and author of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. This article was published in the Denver Post on September 14, 2003.

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"Contrary to federal officials' vision of a largely vacant area, the West was never nearly empty enough. It contained too many residents who would, inevitably, be exposed to the pollution released by nuclear weapons programs. It also contained intricate ecosystems which, far from making for an "empty" place, ensured that radioactive and chemical waste would be absorbed into, distributed about, and concentrated within the landscape in quite complicated ways."
From The Atomic West

Edited by Bruce Hevly and John M. Findlay
University of Washington Press, 1998



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