June 2003

Flats 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

[Posted 06/06/2003]

Last of weapons-grade plutonium to be moved this year.

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," he said.

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 starts over.

"It's been a long, hard struggle," said Hicks. "We're almost done."

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