May 2002

Lawsuit pits S.C. governor vs. 6 tons of plutonium

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (, May 5, 2002
By Charles Seabrook - Staff

[Posted 06/05/2002]

Rocky Flats, Colo. — At the peak of the Cold War, 8,000 workers labored round the clock in top-secret buildings on the windswept prairie west of Denver to build the deadliest devices ever invented —thermonuclear bombs.

Now, with Russia and the United States cutting their nuclear arsenals, the fortresslike Rocky Flats site —once one of the world's most dangerous bomb plants— will shut down by 2006. Its grounds will become a wildlife refuge.

First, though, the government must level hundreds of buildings and remove a huge volume of highly radioactive material left from decades of making hydrogen bombs.

Crews are sending tons of this waste to disposal, storage and recycling sites around the country. The most dangerous material —more than 6 tons of heavily guarded plutonium suitable for use in H-bomb— is destined for the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, 175 miles east of Atlanta. There, if all goes according to plan, it would be recycled into fuel for electricity-generating reactors.

Plutonium shipments to Savannah River, which are likely to traverse Georgia in tractor-trailers — exact routes are secret — could begin anytime after May 15.

But getting the substance across the South Carolina border is becoming a political and public relations headache for the Energy Department. South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges pledges to use state troopers —even lie down in the road, if necessary —to turn away plutonium-hauling trucks unless he can be convinced the feds won't leave the plutonium in his state permanently.

So far the Energy Department's promises have left him unconvinced. "The federal government is asking us to take them at their word," Hodges said. "Given their track record, that's not good enough."

On Wednesday the governor sued the Energy Department, asking a federal court to block the plutonium shipments until Washington studies the impact on public health and the environment.

Hodges' stance has thrown the Energy Department, and some Coloradans, into a tizzy.

The Energy Department says sending the plutonium to Savannah River is a major step in its plans to close Rocky Flats. If the plutonium does not begin moving out of Colorado soon, the department will miss its 2006 deadline for closing Rocky Flats, the agency says.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says he fears the Russians may lose interest in cutting weapons if the United States cannot show it is making progress in getting rid of its nuclear material.

Denver's newspapers have called Hodges "silly" and likened him to a Confederate rebel. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who introduced the bill to make Rocky Flats a wildlife refuge, says Hodges will be to blame if plans fall apart.

"As a result of his dangerous gamesmanship, our national security and our nation's environmental security have been placed at risk," Allard said in a recent committee hearing on Capitol Hill. His press secretary has referred to Hodges, a Democrat, as an "Elmer Fudd."

Both Allard and Hodges are running for re-election, raising the possibility that their battle has as much to do with politics as protecting their states from nuclear hazards.

Though the Savannah River Site is only a few miles from the Georgia border, Gov. Roy Barnes has stayed out of the argument, supporting neither the federal plan nor Hodges' objections.

States challenge feds

The plutonium from Rocky Flats is just the first part of more than 34 tons of the radioactive metal —enough to make thousands of H-bombs— that will be shipped to the Savannah River Site from Energy Department sites over the next several years. Much of the plutonium comes from dismantled bombs. Russia has agreed to dispose of a similar amount of the material.

The plutonium would be stored in the same Savannah River structure in which much of the material was made, the old K-reactor building. During the Cold War it housed one of five reactors that churned out hundreds of tons of plutonium and other nuclear material for weapons.

The plutonium shipped to Savannah River would be reprocessed into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. When that fuel is spent, it would be disposed of at a planned repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

To reprocess the plutonium, the Energy Department plans to spend $3.8 billion to build and operate two massive structures at Savannah River. Hodges' fear is that the structures won't be built and the plutonium will sit indefinitely.

The feud between Energy Department and South Carolina underscores the enormous and politically difficult task of cleaning up the nation's nuclear weapons sites, some of the most polluted places on earth. The standoff also reflects growing tension between the federal government and states over the transporting, handling and storing of nuclear material.

Nevada is fighting the planned Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste. Idaho has had a running battle with the Energy Department to clean up plutonium-contaminated waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has protested a plan to ship 2 metric tons of nuclear waste, from Rocky Flats and elsewhere, to his state for storage.

Raided by the FBI

The cleanup and closure of the 6,500-acre Rocky Flats facility, once one of the world's filthiest bomb factories, will set the tone for other such projects to come, nuclear experts say.

At a cost of more than $7 billion, the effort at Rocky Flats is one of the biggest public works projects in the nation's history and the first of its kind —the complete dismantling of a major nuclear weapons plant— in the world.

The Atomic Energy Commission began building Rocky Flats in 1951, when President Harry S. Truman ordered up a nationwide complex to make thermonuclear bombs as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.

Rocky Flats took plutonium, produced by reactors at Savannah River and the government's Hanford plant in Washington state, and turned it into plutonium "pits," or triggers for nuclear bombs.

A hollow sphere that varies in size from a grapefruit to a soccer ball, a plutonium pit explodes with the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima during World War II. But in thermonuclear weapons, the pit serves mainly as a starter —the pit is a compact atomic bomb that detonates the larger hydrogen bomb. Pits made at Rocky Flats can trigger weapons 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which itself was the explosive equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT.

Declassified reports reveal that Rocky Flats made about 70,000 pits in 36 years. Manufacturing at the site came to an abrupt halt in 1989 when the FBI raided the factory for alleged environmental crimes. An Energy Department contractor agreed to pay more than $18 million in fines —at that time the largest environmental penalty in U.S. history.

Because of numerous environmental and safety deficiencies, Rocky Flats never resumed operations. In 2000 the Energy Department signed a contract with Kaiser-Hill, an environmental restoration company, to clean up the site, tear down its hundreds of structures and close it down by the end of 2006.

Energy Department officials say they are now about a third of the way through the cleanup. Grassy areas and piles of rubble now mark the spots where some of the plant's support buildings and laboratories once stood.

Nearly every day, tractor-trailer rigs loaded with radioactive waste in huge shipping casks depart for the various storage sites around the country.

Rocky Flats' remaining plutonium pits already have been sent for storage at the government's Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, where nuclear bombs were assembled. And the remaining enriched uranium has been hauled to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for storage.

"We have more than 700 buildings here, large and small, and every one of them will be decontaminated and torn down," said Pat Etchart, a Rocky Flats spokesman, as he drove a visitor through the complex recently.

Some of those buildings cover the equivalent of three football fields and have walls more than 5 feet thick.

Tearing down such massive structures would be a major feat under even ordinary circumstances.

But the dismantling job becomes immensely more complex when workers are required to dress in bright yellow moonsuits and follow precise, detailed safety steps to protect themselves from dangerous nuclear materials and radiation in the buildings. One building was so heavily contaminated when some plutonium caught fire in 1969 that bomb plant managers finally gave up on trying to clean it and instead built a false ceiling to trap the radioactivity.

Most of the demolition wastes are assumed to be contaminated, and must be carefully packaged and hauled off to secure storage sites.

Notorious building

During the peak of Rocky Flats' bomb-making activity, several of its structures were widely described as some of America's "most dangerous buildings."

Perhaps the most notorious of them is Building 771, a windowless, two-story concrete edifice built into a hillside in 1951. It is where almost every nuclear weapon ever made by the United States started.

Building 771 shaped plutonium into gray ingots the size of a hockey puck. Purifying the plutonium required vast amounts of nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride and other caustic liquids. The workers' greatest fear was leaks from valves and pipes.

The more than 6 tons of plutonium —the exact amount is classified— now awaiting shipment to Savannah River is stored in heavily guarded Building 371, the only structure at Rocky Flats that still contains the material. At one time, seven buildings held the substance.

Energy Department officials say they could speed the cleanup if they could get rid of the plutonium. Providing security for it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, funds that could be applied to the cleanup effort if the plutonium were gone, they say.

Seeking resolution

At the Justice Department, lawyers are looking at whether to send federal marshals along with the shipments to South Carolina, and studying the law about whether Hodges can block the shipments.

The Energy Department is hoping for a congressional solution that would avert prolonged legal action. Abraham, the energy secretary, said Friday that Hodges' lawsuit was "ill-timed, unnecessary and counterproductive."

"We have engaged, for months, in bipartisan negotiations with South Carolina leaders to bring this matter to resolution," Abraham said. "Unfortunately, the filing of a lawsuit by Governor Hodges runs completely counter to any effort to work together to reach a solution."

On Thursday, the day after Hodges filed his lawsuit to halt the plutonium shipments, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bill under which the Energy Department would be fined $1 million a day starting in 2011 if at least 1 ton of Savannah River plutonium had not been made into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

The government would have to move the plutonium or speed up the conversion to stop the fines.

Hodges, however, calls the bill unacceptable. Missing from the legislation, he says, is a firm commitment by the Energy Department to fund the $3.8 billion plutonium reprocessing plant at Savannah River.

He says the $1 million per day fine, which would be capped at $100 million, will not be a strong enough penalty to force the Energy Department to stick to its promises.

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