Originally created 11/15/00

Controversy surrounds site



The nation's nuclear-weapons program never has been without controversy, and Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site often has been at its center.

The site, located 15 miles northwest of downtown Denver, faced protests throughout much of its four decades of weapons production.

The U.S. Department of Energy stopped work at the site in 1989, but not before the worst fears of Rocky Flats' opponents had been confirmed: Years of Cold War weapons production had taken an extreme toll on the environment there.

Now, the Energy Department is toiling to meet a 2010 deadline to clean up the site, at an estimated cost of $7.3 billion.

Rocky Flats was founded in 1951 by the Atomic Energy Commission and began operating in 1952. For decades, Rocky Flats workers turned raw plutonium produced at Hanford Site, Savannah River Site and other plants into the "pits," or radioactive cores, of nuclear weapons.

Headlines celebrated the announcement and early years of Rocky Flats, but by the late 1960s, the first signs of discontent had appeared. The first protest, as recorded by the site, was in 1969, when a group of opponents walked from the site to the Capitol building in Denver. For two decades to come, critics would call for the closing of Rocky Flats.

In 1989, they got their wish - with the help of the FBI. The bureau, assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency, raided Rocky Flats that June to investigate alleged environmental crimes, according to a history published on Rocky Flats' Web site.

By December, the U.S. Department of Energy had stopped work at Rocky Flats. Although the move was considered temporary at the time, the 1992 cancellation of the nation's W-88 "Trident" warhead program drew production at the plant to a permanent close, according to the site history.

Today, the site's work is concentrated on cleaning up the pollution that is a harsh legacy of the plant's earlier years. According to the Energy Department, there are 170 polluted areas at Rocky Flats, and almost 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste will have to be removed from the site. Some of those wastes will be shipped to SRS for treatment.

About half of Rocky Flats' $650 million annual budget is used for environmental cleanup and other work needed to close the site.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.