Colorado's Plutonium Trigger Plant Morphs to Wildlife Refuge

DENVER, Colorado, June 27, 2005 (ENS) - The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory that once drew 10,000 people to protest demonstrations is being converted into a wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday published the final Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the site 16 miles northwest of Denver, although cleanup of radioactive contamination is not complete.

The final plan is the Service's proposal for management of the site for 15 years, starting when the refuge is established - sometime between 2006 and 2008.

Rocky Flats is a 6,240 acre former nuclear defense facility operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). From 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats manufactured nuclear triggers, or "pits," small, hollow spheres made from plutonium.

In 1992, the mission of the Rocky Flats site changed from weapons production to environmental cleanup and closure. No longer needed for nuclear weapons production, the site is left with a legacy of contamination that includes spills of plutonium, tritium and other radioactive materials.


Rocky Flats as it was in the 1980s when plutonium triggers were manufactured there. (Photo courtesy DOE)
All weapons manufacturing was performed in a 600 acre area in the middle of the site known as the Industrial Area. But radioactive groundwater and airborne dust have spread the contamination beyond that weapons production area.

Contractor Kaiser-Hill is responsible for site cleanup, and on June 1 demolition began for the last plutonium building at Rocky Flats.

The Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board says the remaining risk at the site now centers on protection of surface water leaving the site. Soil and groundwater cleanup projects are underway to accomplish this risk reduction.

Three passive groundwater treatment systems to address groundwater contamination are now operating. "Other groundwater contamination areas, primarily in the former Industrial Area of the site, also need to be addressed," the Board says.

Additional cleanup projects will include addressing the two former onsite landfills and areas of surface soil contamination.

"The successful decontamination and demolition of the major plutonium production facilities must be done carefully to prevent air dispersion of contamination that might be embedded in these facilities," the Board says.


Aerial view of Rocky Flats, 1998. (Photo courtesy DOE)
The DOE says cleanup is taking place in accordance with the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement under oversight by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Overall cleanup of the site is being done to meet a standard that will one day protect the health and safety of a future wildlife refuge worker.

The amount of soil contamination decreases at greater distances from the plant. The soil contamination off site of Rocky Flats is too low to impact public health or the environment, and does not require removal. That conclusion was reached in 1996, by the DOE, the EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after years of environmental studies.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it "understands that some members of the public remain apprehensive about potential public use at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge due to the site’s history."

In the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) the Service says public concerns about the safety of the refuge will be addressed by providing "clear information that educates visitors about access restrictions and public use opportunities" at all trailheads.

The Service says personnel will work with the DOE to develop signage and fencing or another means of boundary demarcation to clearly identify all areas that will be retained by DOE and are closed to public access.


The soil near the industrial area, particularly at the 903 Pad, contains the most plutonium. Here, in 2002, crews dismantle 903 Pad. (Photo courtesy DOE)
The Rocky Flats site consists of prairie, wetlands and upland shrubs. The CCP emphasizes wildlife and habitat conservation with what the Service calls "a moderate amount of wildlife-dependent public use."

Refuge wide habitat conservation will include management of native plant communities, weeds, restoration tools, removal and revegetation of unused roads and stream crossings, management of deer and elk populations, prairie dogs, and protection of Preble's meadow jumping mouse habitat.

Visitor use facilities will include about 16 miles of trails, a visitor contact station that is staffed on a seasonal basis, trailheads with parking, and developed overlooks.

Most of the trails will be located on existing dirt and gravel roads. All trails will be open for hiking, and some will also accommodate bicycle and equestrian use. Under the CCP, the Service will develop a limited public hunting program.

To determine whether deer taken by hunters would be too radioactive to eat, tissues from Rocky Flats resident deer were analyzed and compared with control deer from another Colorado wildlife area.

Andrew Todd and Mark Sattelberg of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the study on tissue collected from 26 deer on the Rocky Flats site that were culled in December 2002 to test for chronic wasting disease. None had the wasting disease.

In 2004, frozen tissues from these deer were sent for analysis to the General Engineering Laboratories in Charleston, South Carolina to be tested for plutonium, uranium and americium.


Deer on the Rocky Flats site (Photo by Mauro courtesy DOE)
Based on the lab results, the scientists found calculated a one in 14.7 million increased chance of cancer resulting from the ingestion of the deer muscle, eaten, for instance, as deer steak or stew.

If this same individual consumed similar deer tissue every year throughout a 70 year life span, he or she would risk a one in 210,000 increased chance of cancer, Todd and Sattelberg calculated. These levels fall within the EPA's acceptable risk range.

Over the last few years the majority of the plutonium stockpile at Rocky Flats was shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Other materials were sent to the Pantex facility on Texas and to facilities in Tennessee. Some of the leftover plutonium was declared a waste, treated and packaged for shipment to the Waste Isolation Plant in New Mexico.

Thousands of cubic yards of wastes at the site must still be shipped away. Some of the waste was left over from the weapons production era, but most of it is being generated during the site's cleanup as buildings are torn down and soil contamination is addressed.

"Some types of waste do not yet have a disposal location designated or available," says the Board. "These orphan wastes must be addressed if the site is to successfully close."

In 1989, Rocky Flats was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund, the national environmental cleanup program. There are areas oat Rocky Flats where chemicals and nuclear materials were buried, contaminating both the soil and groundwater. Various spills and other accidents over the years also have caused contamination.


Big Bluestem grass in the xeric tallgrass prairie at Rocky Flats (Photo courtesy DOE)
In the late 1990s, Rocky Flats was added to a list of accelerated closure sites by the Department of Energy. Funded by a special appropriation from Congress, these sites receive priority funding. For the last several years, Rocky Flats' annual budget has averaged $650 million per year. Funding will continue at this level until the cleanup project is complete. Completion is scheduled for 2006.

While the formal planning process has concluded, the cleanup of Rocky Flats is ongoing. Transfer of the site from the Department of Energy to the Service will not occur until the federal and state environmental agencies certify that the DOE has completed the cleanup and closure.

Public use facilities and programming will be phased in over the 15 year life of the CCP. During the first five years of refuge management, the Service says it will concentrate efforts on habitat restoration and weed control, and provide only limited public access.

Rocky Flats is located 16 miles northwest from the center of Denver, and nine miles southeast of the city of Boulder. Numerous suburban communities are very close to Rocky Flats, including Arvada, Westminster, Broomfield, Louisville, Lafayette, Superior, Thornton, and Northglenn. The closest residence near Rocky Flats is within two miles.

Within a 50 mile radius of the Rocky Flats site reside the 2.2 million people of the eight county Denver metropolitan area.

Currently the site is surrounded by open space, but population pressures mean increasing residential and commercial development near the facility. The Citizens Advisory Board estimates that by the year 2015 the population within a 10 mile radius will grow from the current number of 10,000 to 24,000.

Copies of the final CCP and the deer tissue study are online at: Comments should be directed to:

Also out for public comment is the REVISED Draft Risk Based End State Vision Document for the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site online at:

Find historical information and current cleanup documents at:

The Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board is at: