Many Former Rocky Flats Workers Still Wait for Radiation Exposure Benefits

A worker holds a disk of  plutonium in a containment box at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Golden, Colo., in this 1973 file photo.

Library of Congress / via Wikipedia

A worker holds a disk of plutonium in a containment box at Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Golden, Colo., in this 1973 file photo.

Rocky Flats, the nation’s Cold War nuclear weapons plant just off Highway 93 between Golden and Boulder, no longer stands. But many of the former workers who believe they became ill because of exposure to radiation and toxic materials at the site are still struggling to receive federal benefits.

The challenge is that the federal government requires workers to document their own exposures, an often impossible task because records don’t always exist. More than 4,600 Rocky Flats workers or their survivors have applied to a federal compensation and health coverage program. Fewer than half have been approved.

“It’s been nine years since Rocky Flats closed, and many workers are still waiting,” said Terrie Barrie, who leads the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups.

See the new documentary Colorado’s Cold War” on Colorado Experience on Rocky Mountain PBS.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s description of what it took to tear down the Rocky Flats Plant, says much about the incredibly dangerous mess that it had become.

“Due to historical releases of hazardous substances, including plutonium, depleted uranium, organic substances and hazardous waste constituents . . . the cleanup required the decommissioning, decontamination and demolition of more than 800 structures; removal of more than 500,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste; and remediation of more than 360 contaminated and potentially contaminated environmental sites.”

And that isn’t all. While the plant itself is gone, the land that it covered, the so-called “central operable unit,” remains under DOE control because hazardous substance contamination remains. Weapons grade plutonium, after all, can remain in the environment for thousands of years.

Rocky Flats was at the heart of Colorado’s contributions to the Cold War effort, and workers there and in other plants involved in the manufacture and assembly of nuclear weapons were “cold warriors.”  From 1952 until 1989, Rocky Flats workers used plutonium to build nuclear weapons triggers, called “pits.”

Those pits remain at the heart of America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Many cold warriors paid dearly for the work that exposed them to the deadly carcinogens. The government belatedly recognized the cause-and-effect suffering, establishing the claims program  that remains contentious for the former workers and their families.

In the beginning, however, the plant was “cloaked in secrecy,” according to a state of Colorado historical account of Rocky Flats. “People living nearby were provided little information about the plant or its chemical and radioactive releases.”

A 1969 fire at the plant, still so secret that the blaze received only two paragraphs in the Rocky Mountain News,  was later considered to be “the most costly industrial accident in United States history,” according to the state’s summary.

Things became so bad at Rocky Flats, by then managed by differing government contractors, that agents from the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency raided the plant on June 6, 1989 to investigate allegations of environmental crimes.

That was the beginning of the end.

In October 2005, the DOE and its contractor completed an accelerated 10-year, $7 billion demolition and cleanup effort, leaving Rocky Flats as it is today, a still contaminated industrial site surrounded by a buffer zone that has become a national wildlife refuge.


3 thoughts on “Many Former Rocky Flats Workers Still Wait for Radiation Exposure Benefits

  1. As i previously wrote to you I was very disappointed in the “Cold War” episode on PBS. As a long time supporter of PBS’ in depth reporting, this superficial, ignorant episode was not what was expected.

    Even though it was 25 years ago there are still many of us who were involved at the scientific and legal side of this issue. Didn’t expect this kind of work from PBS.

  2. Terrie
    I am a widow of Rocky Flats ! And my husband passed away in February of 1997. I applied for the compensation because he had nine cancer tumors in his head that were inoperable there was nothing to be done to try and cure him !! Everything I sent to D.O.E for the so called REM elevation they changed the dosage (their findings ) . And I had a lot of information !!! Got close to the 50 REM that was needed but never there !!! A person can tell it’s all fixed !! They said it kept getting lowered every time I sent more information because they gave a person so much le-way to start with !! Eventually I was turned down !!!
    But I THANK YOU Terrie for all that you do and all time you spend on this for us !!! I stay currant on the e-mails I get from you. But Rocky Flats is just like the Military or any Government connected job!!! Once they have gotten what they need from you at the time and after they get what they want no matter the risk to you THEY REALLY DON’T GIVE A DAMN wither you live or die !!!

  3. I found the Rockwell worked well with DOE in concealing health records, which became obvious when the testing at National Jewish Hospital for exposure to Berylium was no longer being done by the employees at National Jewish Hospital, but instead the employees from Oakridge Tenn. Nuclear facility were brought in to do the testing at National Jewish Hospital. Seems that the nurses at National Jewish Hospital went against the so called agreement with Rockwell not to disclose any information concerning their findings.

    Also, during my last day at Rocky Flats you were required to do a walk through, signing off from all departments on the plant site, one of which was Health Physics, to do a “Body Count” checking for background radiation levels. I just happened to do my walk through with a Union Rep. who was retiring, and when we did our body counts we were each given computer readouts claiming that we were okay, meaning that the background levels were in an acceptable range. My friend, when receiving his about went through the roof stating that he wanted to see the “REAL” records, informing the nurse that he had been in the fire in the 700 complex in 1969 and at that time was informed that he was permanently contaminated. Her response was that if he had a discrepancy he should go to the main office and speak to the general manager. We finished with everything then went to be debriefed and parted company. About a year later I happened to run into the Union Rep and asked him what ever happened concerning his medical records. He told me that he had gone to the main office to talk to the manager and was told not to worry, his original medical records were still in the “SAFE” ? I confirmed to me that there was indeed at least 2 sets of medical records.

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