workers packing it up
The Daily Camera, 5 June 2003
By Kate Larsen, Camera Staff Writer
Original address: http://www2.dailycamera.com/bdc/county_news/article/0,1713,BDC_2423_2013134,00.html
Last of weapons-grade plutonium to be moved this
When the music stops, Richard Johnston will walk
out of Rocky Flats Building 371 for the last time.
"It's a good feeling in the sense that we're
getting this nuclear matter out of the Denver area," said Johnston,
who will retire after 24 years at Rocky Flats when the packaging project
concludes this year.
Building 371 at the former nuclear weapons plant
is where workers are packing up the final bits of weapons-grade plutonium
to be shipped off to South Carolina. Twenty-four hours a day, seven
days a week, smooth jazz plays in the background as men and women in
yellow suits and rubber gloves get plutonium safe and ready to be shipped
for 50-year storage.
The music is a necessity — a reminder to workers
that the speakers, which broadcast an alarm in the event of a security
problem, are working. When the packaging is finished later this summer
and all of the plutonium is gone, the music will cease and the building
will be shut down.
The end of the music will mark the end of the "nuclear
mission" at Rocky Flats, said John Corsi, spokesman for Kaiser-Hill,
the company cleaning up Rocky Flats.
The most dangerous materials will be off the site
by the end of the year, and the cleanup will focus more on deconstruction
of buildings, Corsi said.
"There will be a big cultural change,"
Many of the armed guards will be gone. Thorough
security checks, which include metal detectors and hand-scanning machines,
will also disappear.
"We will be free of weapons-grade material,
but there will still be radioactivity," Corsi said.
The need for the security speakers and smooth jazz
will be gone.
Music in the air
The lustful sounds of Norah Jones filled the air
Wednesday as Johnston and others worked to package the final containers
of plutonium oxide. To date, their eight-container per day pace has
sealed off 1,767 of an estimated 1,800 containers.
For nearly 40 years, Flats workers used radioactive
and toxic metals, including plutonium and uranium, to build parts of
nuclear bombs. Since 1995, the site has undergone a massive cleanup
of its buildings, soils and groundwater.
The former weapons plant is expected to become a
wildlife refuge in 2006, when cleanup is finished.
This final phase of the plutonium cleanup involves
brushing nuclear weapons parts for plutonium oxide, or the rust buildup.
The powdery form of the radioactive substance is then heated at 950
degrees Celsius for several hours before it is sealed in a canister.
Rocky Flats officials said the remaining 100 or
so containers should be ready for shipment — ahead of schedule
— by August.
It hasn't been a completely smooth ride.
Roughly one in four containers fails inspection
because they are not welded correctly, said Dave Hicks, a plutonium
removal manager with the Energy Department, which owns Rocky Flats.
A semi-automated machine that welds the containers has had problems
throughout the project, he said.
The faulty canisters must be unpacked and the process
"It's been a long, hard struggle," said
Hicks. "We're almost done."