The Lessons of Nuclear Secrecy at Rocky Flats: Press Release

Press Release

Embargoed until 12:30 PM EDT, Thursday August 26, 1999

For additional information contact:
David Albright or Kevin O’Neill
(202) 547-3633

Go to the Issue Brief

The Lessons of Nuclear Secrecy at Rocky Flats

Washington, DC—Excessive secrecy at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant near Denver, Colorado, increased the health and safety risks to the public, according to the “The Lessons of Nuclear Secrecy at Rocky Flats,” an issue brief by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Due to secrecy, the plant ignored lessons about preventing and fighting plutonium fires and did not follow standard fire safety practices then in effect. As a result, a fire in 1957 released plutonium into the atmosphere and a fire in 1969 nearly contaminated much of the Denver area with dangerous amounts of plutonium, according to the brief.

This conclusion is supported by a 10-year study administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a forthcoming book, entitled Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, by Colorado University professor Len Ackland. Both the Colorado study and the forthcoming book contain much evidence that radiological catastrophes were narrowly averted at Rocky Flats, particularly during two major fires in the buildings where plutonium was processed. The book also reveals how the government and its contractors intentionally kept the public in the dark about the dangers posed by the plant.

“The risk to the public was unacceptable when the plant was operating,” according to ISIS. The issue brief finds that secrecy worsened many plant safety and health problems, and greatly reduced both the plant’s accountability and the public’s trust.

The Colorado health department’s study, to be formally released this week, concludes that the health risks posed by releases of plutonium were small. However, both the study and Ackland’s book describe many plant practices that placed the general public at risk. Plant officials defend these practices by arguing that “times were different then.” However, many of the practices continued until the plant closed, and today DOE is moving back toward the level of secrecy that allowed for past abuses at Rocky Flats and elsewhere.

Learning the lessons of Rocky Flats is needed to prevent similar practices from reoccurring. These lessons include:

  • Active public oversight of DOE and DOE contractors remains key to minimizing health and safety risks posed by efforts, now underway, to clean up the Rocky Flats site and other DOE sites;
  • An openness policy is critical, as is the continued declassification of information that does not pose a national security risk;
  • Adequate resources need to be provided by the Energy Department to ensure adequate public oversight, openness and the declassification of needed information;
  • Additional historical studies may be needed to answer questions as they arise. These studies also need to be funded by the federal and state governments. The Paducah uranium enrichment plant and other sites may require special attention.

According to ISIS, the Energy Department’s decision to cooperate with the Colorado study by providing resources and declassifying information about plant activities made the resulting study possible and credible. In releasing the issue brief, ISIS President David Albright said that the needed information was declassified without harm to national security. “Openness, accountability and national security need not be in conflict with one another,” he added.

Noting on-going proposals to reorganize the Energy Department, the issue brief says that neither Congress nor the Clinton administration should use reorganization “as an excuse to wipe out the DOE-wide gains in public accountability and openness that have been made over the past several years.”