- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

There's nothing like a couple of sentimental old bomb components to brighten up a place.

That was the theory, anyway, among workers at Colorado's now-defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. They just wanted a little atomic cachet some nukeknacks, really to remind them of time spent at a Cold War pulse point.

And the workers got them, right from a scrap bin which contained a mother lode of obsolete or rejected stainless steel tubes, reservoirs and "hemi-shells" bomb innards.

Nothing was "hot," in the radioactive sense. But they came in shapes ideal for reinvention as ironic candy dishes or paperweights.

"They were proud of the stuff they made," said John Corsi of Kaiser-Hill, the company charged with cleaning up the defunct site, which opened in 1952 and made plutonium bombs for decades.

"But it became a property management issue. Taking those items was inappropriate because they were government property," Mr. Corsi said.

Indeed. The Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the site, would have none of it. During an inspection, DOE officials saw the purloined parts in a few offices and mentioned it in a recent report for the inspector general that assessed overall inventory control.

Thirty workers filched the shiny pieces around 1995; at least one took a prize home. Was inventory control lax?

"There was no assurance," the report said, that radioactive materials might not end up in trash, or in routine shipments to metal recycling companies. Yet watching over every little piece of equipment was not cost-effective, either.

This is, however, the first time a nuclear bomb plant has been dismantled. There is no real protocol. DOE officials said yesterday that efforts were under way to "develop the mechanism" for one.

All of this hubbub would hardly register on a Geiger counter, compared to the facility's woes of yesteryear.

Rocky Flats often billed as "infamous" was on report with various federal agencies for years.

There were fires in 1957 and 1969 which released plutonium into the air; an estimated 5,000 tons of contaminated solvent leaked from the plant in the 1960s. The FBI eventually raided it for "environmental crimes" in 1989 and the facility was closed.

But Rocky Flats was and remains an icon of the Cold War era, and not without its pride and patriotism, judging from an official on-line history found at www.rfets.gov.

Sequestered behind miles of barbed wire in the foothills north of Denver and guarded by security teams who could shoot to kill, the site maintained a compartmentalized, but tight-knit existence.

Employees had "Q," or atomic-level clearance, requiring a 15-year background check. They had white radiation safety uniforms, right down to their underwear and boots.

Workers were forbidden to talk about their daily activities; most didn't. They could not refer to such bomb-making staples as plutonium, uranium or americum and used code words instead. In the old days, supervisors would place a black "8-ball" on the desks of those who slipped up.

Only cleanup personnel now staff a $4 billion, six-year reclamation project that will eventually turn the compound into pristine grasslands.

Kaiser-Hill's Mr. Corsi is not unaware of the historic value of it all and has investigated possibilities of starting a community museum on his own time.

He would have a ready audience among those curious or even nostalgic about the Cold War. Already, decommissioned nuclear missile silos have been turned into museums and even private homes; fund raising is under way for a Cold War Museum to be located near Dulles airport.

Rocky Flats is still burdened with age and a dangerous pedigree. A 1999 Newsweek story claimed that 2,400 pounds of plutonium was still unaccounted for; a General Accounting Office report noted that $21 million in equipment was missing.

Anything which is both "missing" and nuclear in nature almost guarantees media coverage which smacks of a Tom Clancy novel such as the oft-hysterical press garnered by the lost Los Alamos computer disks last month.

In recent years, curious stories have surfaced of radioactive recliner chairs and floor scrubbers, missing courier packages full of radioactive iridium, uranium fragments in old U.S. Archives files, misplaced portable nuclear bombs and U.S. Navy cook pots contaminated by cobalt-60.

In the big picture, the Rocky Flats nuclear curios are a small-scale problem.

"Things get misplaced sometimes," said a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates safety procedures in private industry and medicine.

"The loss of those obsolete parts does not compare to someone walking off with a classified part. And these parts, most importantly, were not radioactive."

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