Published: June 1, 2011 By

rocky flats

People gather near Rocky Flats to protest in this 1980 yearbook photo.

Japan’s nuclear mess brings to mind some local nuclear “oops-dang!” moments at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder.

Following the Dow Chemical Co.’s great plutonium fire of 1969 at Rocky Flats, which set U.S. nuke production back a year, the company announced no plutonium had left the building, despite how bad the fire was.

The late Ed Martel of NCAR was skeptical. A big plume of smoke had been seen, so he collected soil samples between Rocky Flats and Castle Rock.

And sure enough, plutonium showed up 30 miles from the plant. J’accuse!, he said in so many words.

Eventually a strangled voice emanated from the executive bunker at Rocky Flats.

“About that plutonium — it probably came from the barrels, not the fire,” it said brightly.

“The barrels?” everyone chorused, forgetting about the fire.

Yep, the barrels. When atom bomb parts are being machined, they have to be lubricated to keep the lathes from binding up. The lubricating oil gets contaminated with plutonium shavings.

Rocky Flats’ way of handling the waste oil was to pour it into steel barrels and store them in an open field.

Eventually more than 3,000 barrels of plutonium-laced machine tool oil piled up.

Alas, unlike air traffic controllers, rust never sleeps. Corrosion and leakage ensued. Rocky Flats management sprang into action.

“Hire a couple of guys to pour the oil from leaky barrels into new barrels,” said The Suits.

Problem solved until Martel let Schrödinger’s cat out of the bag, so to speak [reference to a paradox devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger].

Several half-lives of deliberation ensued. Eventually it was decided to ship the barrels off to Hanford, Washington, along with a few acre feet of the soil under them. A big asphalt patch was applied to the site. You might say they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Meanwhile, Carl Johnson, head of the Jefferson County Health Department, wondered what else might be coming out of Rocky Flats. So he tested the streams flowing off the plant site.

He found tritium, which is radioactive, in Walnut Creek that runs into Broomfield’s reservoir. Tritium is a hydrogen atom with two neutrons in its nucleus. If you happen to be in the atom bomb business, tritium is kind of a multi-purpose secret sauce.

Eventually, someone tested the locals to see if the tritium had worked its way into their bodies.

It had.

The highest levels were found in those who regularly worked out and drank a lot of water. The lowest levels were found among those who hung out in bars and drank a lot of beer. And if that ain’t true, it oughta be.