Out in the Cold
They are America's Cold War veterans, who forged weapons from a fearsome energy source and bravely endured years of radiation for a country that pledged to take care of them. Instead, government loopholes and evasions are making sure those promises are never kept.
Tom Haverty got the order from his foreman one fall afternoon in the early '90s. It could've been '91 or '93, but jobs like this were frequent, and today, after so many surgeries and medications, he has trouble fixing them in time. He and a few fellow electrical engineers were instructed to report to a storage room in building 371, one of the facility's hottest. As was the case since he started at the Flats in 1984, this was a need-to-know assignment: A criticality head, or crit-head—one of several types of radiation-detecting alarms—in the room needed to be moved.
Crit-head reinstallation was a common enough job in the early '90s, but the irony never escaped Tom. Just a few years earlier, in 1989, acting on an internal DOE memo that cited "serious contamination" and "patently illegal waste facilities," the FBI had raided the Rocky Flats site. The 18-day bust made headlines across the country. It was the first time that one federal agency had raided another federal agency. The FBI, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, uncovered a disturbingly high number of environmental and health-safety violations—everything from poor record keeping to dumping radioactive waste in on-site creeks to dilution of water samples so that plutonium levels would look less drastic. Jon Lipsky, one of the FBI's lead Flats investigators, recently told me there were "inconsistencies that were punishable under penalty of perjury. The DOE didn't let anyone know what went on out there."
The raid put Rocky Flats on the national map—as a disaster. The EPA declared it a Superfund site, the most severe ranking that an environmentally unsafe area can receive. There was a three-year investigation and a grand jury convened. Rockwell International Corp., the private contractor running Rocky Flats at the time, pleaded guilty to five felony charges and was fined $18.5 million. Conditions at the Flats were so abhorrent that the Feds shut down weapons production and halted waste disposal until the place could get its act together. As Tom recently said, "Rocky Flats was constipated, but no one was allowed to give it an enema."
In the wake of the raid, waste had piled up at such a rapid rate that crit-heads were increasingly likely to sound, signaling a potential "criticality"—a nuclear chain reaction that could cause an explosion and radiate a swath of the Front Range. Although the Flats never experienced a criticality, it was an incessant threat. In addition to the likely human devastation, a criticality would have required the expensive and dangerous decontamination of the building. In the early 1990s, Tom often found himself detailed to criticality head assignments. He would suit up in a pair of thick lead aprons—one for the front, one for the back—and set about moving the alarms away from areas with high levels of radiation. It was a stop-gap measure at best, like moving a smoke detector away from a pile of matches and gasoline.
Life at the Flats satisfied the two sides of Tom—engineering nerd and adrenaline junkie. He told me about his adventures one summer evening as we rode in his Jeep along a dark forest road near his Huerfano County mountain home. Talking in the certain but gravelly voice of a wizened uncle, Tom said that he'd joined the Navy and quickly became a sonar man, fiddling with knobs and dials to his great delight. Tom the risk taker couldn't get near a small plane without wanting to fly it or jump out of it. Tom the nerd later worked as an electronics technician at NASA back in '69, when Apollo 11 touched down. It was a milestone in American history, and Tom, then 29 and starting a family, was thrilled to be so close to the action. An electrical engineering gig at the Flats had everything Tom needed. "It was exciting, stimulating work that allowed me to serve my country," he told me. "I knew there were risks, but as an engineer this was as interesting and important as a job could get."
Tom worked lots of electrical engineering projects. For one, he recalls, he received a dire warning: You have 90 seconds to complete the job. A radiological control technician explained that the storage room that Tom was about to enter was so contaminated that any more than a minute or two inside was unsafe. Green DOE barrels were stacked and scattered throughout the room. They held every radioactive item that a bomb factory could cook up—machine parts, laundry, glove-box parts, coveralls, remnants from small fires. Tom felt like he was looking at a gaping radioactive wound: "It was one of those times when I'd be in the process area, and I'd look around and think, 'My God. What have I gotten myself into?'"
Ninety seconds after entering the room, Tom was back out in the hallway, ditching his heavy lead aprons. A few weeks later, following Rocky Flats protocol, he dropped off his dosimeter at the lab for an official reading. He expected the worst. To his surprise, he received an impossible result: "no data available."