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Nuclear Weapons

The Rocky Flats Raid

by Jasmine Owens
June 01, 2021

Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Or, can we learn from our past and build a safer, healthier future?

On June 6th, 1989, a team of FBI agents dressed in plain clothes walked into the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. They said they needed to inform the facility officials about a threat from an eco-terrorist organization. In reality, the agents were there to buy time while 30 vehicles with more than 70 armed agents made their way to the plant. As soon as they were ready, the FBI agents told the facility officials why they were really there. The FBI believed the plant was illegally burning hazardous waste. It was the first time in U.S. history that one government agency had raided another. 

A Hazardous History

For forty years, the Rocky Flats Plant made plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear weapons. The plant was a government facility owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), but it was run by an outside contractor, first Dow Chemical and then Rockwell International.

man holds plutonium button

View of a worker holding a plutonium button. Rocky Flats produced most of the plutonium triggers used in nuclear weapons from 1953-1964, and all of the triggers produced from 1964 until 1989 when production was suspended.

U.S. Department of Energy

Throughout its operation, there were reports of the plant violating environmental regulations. Thousands of leaking barrels contaminated the soil and nearby water reservoirs with toxic waste. Two major fires occurred at Rocky Flats, one in 1957 and another in 1969. Both fires released dangerous amounts of radioactive waste into the air. The public was never notified about the 1957 fire. The event only came to light when scientists at the University of Colorado recorded that the contamination near the plant was the highest ever recorded near a city—including Nagasaki after the bombing. The 1969 fire was barely even mentioned in the news despite it being the most expensive industrial accident in U.S. history at the time.

Then in 1987, an accident at the incinerator building contaminated a DOE employee. The DOE issued an order to shut down the incinerator until it met safety requirements. However, there were allegations that the plant continued to burn hazardous waste despite the shutdown order.  The FBI and EPA decided it was time to take action.

rows of barrels

A view of the interior of the x-y retriever. The x-y retriever was used to sort and retrieve plutonium metal from a storage vault for distribution to other processes in Building 707. Building 707 was the primary plutonium manufacturing and assembly facility at the plant from 1970 until curtailment of operations in 1989. The design of Building 707 incorporated extensive control and safety features, including the first-time use of inert atmosphere in the glove boxes, primarily in response to two earlier fires.

U.S. Department of Energy

By June, the FBI and EPA had organized the raid on Rocky Flats. As soon as the agents announced the true purpose of their visit, the DoE and Rockwell began their efforts to impede the raid at every turn. When FBI agents stumbled upon dozens of documents, the manager of Rockwell lied and said they were diary entries from his time at NASA. They were actually diary entries discussing how the plant was violating laws and contributing to environmental contamination.  Elsewhere, plant workers would take barrels of hazardous waste out of the room the FBI agents were about to inspect. As soon as the agents left, they would put the barrels back in. Just a few days into the raid, the search warrant was unsealed and made public, allowing Rockwell and the DoE to try to cover their tracks.

After the raid, 62 pounds of plutonium were found in ventilation systems throughout the incinerator building. Later, cleanup crews dubbed the building the “infinity room” because the radiation was so high it maxed out the Geiger counters, forcing them to issue warnings of “infinite” amounts of radiation present.

man in protective suit

Rocky Flats workers help a skilled trades worker, put his anti-contamination suit on before entering the Infinity room, room #141, Building 771, at Rocky Flats. The room was named by local media in the 1970s because contamination levels in the room were so high that they could not be measured.

Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Over the course of its 40-year operation, the plant had managed to lose more than 2,600 pounds of plutonium and other radioactive materials. Contamination of the surrounding community was so bad that the county health director continuously issued warnings about increasing rates of cancer and infant mortality.

Despite a four-year-long federal trial that led to the indictment of Rockwell and eight other people for their environmental crimes, the U.S. Attorney refused to sign the indictment. Rather, Rockwell was awarded a plea deal for $18.5 million. The subsequent clean-up efforts cost $7 billion. Prosecutors declared that there was no significant harm to the environment caused by Rocky Flats. The Justice Department also stated that no illicit midnight burning ever occurred. No one was held accountable for their actions.

Have We Learned From Our Mistakes?

The Rocky Flats incident demonstrated the clear dangers of mismanaged nuclear facilities and materials. Despite being a government facility, improper management and poor inter-agency communication led the DoE and the Rocky Flats facility to commit severe environmental crimes. 

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The U.S. is entering a new phase of nuclear arms production.  In addition to building new low-yield nuclear weapons, the U.S. is rebuilding its entire existing nuclear arsenal and ramping up production of plutonium cores.  

We haven't faced our history, and we are rushing headlong to repeat it.

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