Guest Posting about Full Body Burden

body-burdenThis is the first guest posting on the blog, and I’ve changed some of my personal guidelines to accommodate it, including that it is longer than the usual posting,  The content is in response to a Reader’s Digest article by Karen Iversen, author of “Full Body Burden,” which is a book that contains an accumulation of negative stories about the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant (see the posting dated July 11). I have added a link to Ms Iversen’s book and my book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats” for those who want two different stories about the plant. With that introduction, the following is the submittal from Ken Calkins, a long time employee of the Rocky Flats Plant.

The July/August 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest carried an article – “My Nuclear Neighborhood” – by Karen Iversen, which supposedly told “what was really going on within those walls.”  It is difficult to understand just what the point of the article was, except that it was supposedly authentic because the author had lived in the area, and had actually worked in the plant – for one year, five years after the plant had ceased operations.

I would like to present another viewpoint, also as a neighbor, a few miles farther away than Ms. Iversen. I was an employee at the plant for 34 years (1955-1989).

With all the things that we have to worry about in our society: unemployment rates exceeding 8% for five years, a burgeoning national debt, periodic mass shootings, wildfires causing hundred millions of dollars in damage, traffic accidents causing thousands of deaths each year, etc., it is hard to understand why anyone would use any of their worry quota on Rocky Flats.  The fact is that, in the fifty plus years of Rocky Flats’ existence, nobody offsite (and not many onsite) was shown to be injured by Rocky Flats operations.  Yes, there are the stories about “my cousin, who lived five miles downwind from Rocky Flats, developed colon cancer, so it must have come from Rocky Flats.”  But the cousin probably had a brother-in-law who was a smoker, or had sprayed his lawn with a weed killer, or had used a mosquito spray on his patio, all of which are as likely to have been causative factors.  And colon cancer occurs thousands of miles away from Rocky Flats every year.  I repeat; no one has shown that they were injured, or that any property damage occurred, from Rocky Flats.

Probably a lot of the concern about Rocky Flats has its roots in what the news media likes to call the “super secret” or “top-secret” facility.  Actually, Rocky Flats followed the same security classifications for the same activities as any other facility within the AEC/DOE system.  These requirements were a matter of law, as mandated by Congress in the Atomic Energy Act of 1956, and were applied in order to prevent countries that didn‘t like us from easily building their own weapons. Violating the law could result in severe punishment, including prison terms.  No Rocky Flats employee was ever charged with a security breach.  So instead of implying that Rocky Flats personnel used the secrecy to cover up activities, anyone with concerns should talk to their Congressman about changing the law.  Actually, it would have been fine with most Rocky Flats employees if the facility had been opened up.  Perhaps the plant should have begun public tours earlier.

Another cause of the public concern about the Flats is the fiction, again perpetuated by the news media that “the tiniest particle of plutonium will kill you” and this combined with the fact that instruments have been developed to detect minute quantities of plutonium.  If the phrase “…within 200 years” were added, it might be closer to accurate.  Even then, some understanding is needed.  Like many other chemicals, small amounts of plutonium can be tolerated by the human body with no significant ill effects, but above a certain amount, biological damage begins to occur.  This threshold amount is called a “full body burden.”  The amount in one’s body is usually expressed as a percentage of the full body burden,  Besides plutonium, body burdens have been established for such chemicals as lead, mercury, arsenic, dioxins, DDT, PCBs, etc. Many ex-workers in the plutonium industry have carried significant body burdens of plutonium, some even exceeding 100%, for decades with no problems. So the idea that a member of the public would be immediately harmed from dust blowing from the plant is just not realistic.

Another fiction perpetuated by the news media is that the 1969 fire in Building 776 was the “costliest industrial fire in history.”  This idea came about because AEC officials chose to submit all fire related costs, including upgrades and improvements (even including the construction of Building 371) in one package.  From the standpoint of requesting money from Congress, this approach was probably best.  But it was like crashing your 1977 VW, worth $2000, into a tree, then telling your insurance agent that you have decided to replace it with a new Ferrari, so you are submitting a claim for $100,000.  He would tell you that the loss in the accident was the value of the VW, plus any death, injuries, and cleanup cost.  On that basis, the Building 776 fire was quite significant, but far from the costliest in history.

The so-called FBI “raid” in 1989, also referenced by Ms. Iversen and frequently referenced in the media, was so absurd that many technical employees were frustrated that corporate Rockwell did not aggressively show the public how silly it was.  An underlying cause was the dispute between two government agencies about who was in charge.  That was stimulated by the EPA’s inability to understand that the incinerator in question was a part of the plutonium recovery process, and not used for the disposal of wastes.  (A waste incinerator was operated elsewhere on the plant site.)  According to rumor, these points were fanned by some disgruntled employee’s report that the incinerator was being operated illegally.

Reportedly, the raid was conducted because the EPA found that the incinerator was being operated”at midnight” as determined by a helicopter flyover, using an infrared detector.  The implication is that anything operated at midnight is done so as to avoid detection by neighbors, and is therefore suspicious.  Now here is an operation being conducted inside a glove box, that inside a processing area with no windows, surrounded by “cold” service and hallways, inside a building with minimum 12″ thick concrete walls, inside a double-fence security area, inside a plant operations area, with the closest off-site neighbor about two miles away.  Why would operations personnel be concerned about whether or not the operation was seen?  And of course it was operating at midnight – also at any other time of the day or night.  The incinerator was a part of the plutonium recovery operation which was itself a continuous operation, starting up on Monday morning and closing down on Friday night.  Because it took about four hours to startup, and also four hours to conduct a safe shutdown, it was not feasible to operate in the daytime only.  So “operating at midnight” has no meaning at all.

Outsiders envision the “incinerator” as a large piece of equipment with a roaring fire inside.  Actually, it was small – about the size of your backyard barbecue – and was slowly fed small amounts of combustible material contaminated with plutonium.  Infrared detectors – and certainly the ones available in 1989 – cannot detect changes of a few degrees in air temperature.  But the incinerator in question produced little heat of combustion, and the exhaust gases were then cooled to nearly room temperature by a water scrubber before going to the building exhaust system.  The net effect on exhaust gas temperature was less than a degree, and was less than other process equipment such as the hydrofluorinator, calciner, and reduction furnaces.  The net effect of this technical jargon is that surveying the exhaust stack with infrared detectors tells nothing at all about operation of the incinerator, day or night, and so there was no basis for a “raid.”

The most ridiculous charge of all is that the incinerator was used to dispose of “unwanted” plutonium.  First of all – there is no such thing.  It is a highly valuable and sought-after material.  From a criticality safety point of view, the incinerator was not designed or permitted to operate with metallic or highly concentrated plutonium feed.  And the incinerator did not dispose of plutonium.  It simply burned off excess material and converted plutonium to plutonium oxide.  If the original feed was unwanted, then the resulting oxide was still unwanted, and had to be handled in some safe way.

Ms. Iverson is reported to have “devoted a decade to researching Rocky Flats”, whatever that means.  If so, I am surprised that she did not report that in the late 1950’s and -60’s, Rocky Flats was consistently recognized as the safest plant operation in Colorado, and among the top in the nation.  During this period, particularly starting after the 1957 fire in Building 71, all plant activities were carefully examined for safety aspects.  The plant was divided into Safety “Teams” and each team developed safety programs and goals.  Upon reaching the goals, team members were given some appropriate reward.  Rewards were also given for overall plant achievements.  At the top, the plant fell just short of reaching 25 million man-hours of work without a lost-time injury – a new national record.  The National Safety Council (NSC), which was the agency monitoring all industrial safety at that time, used measuring sticks involving fatalities, lost-time injuries, and near misses compared to man-hours of work. Using these criteria, Rocky Flats broke numerous national records for safe operation, and was always among the national leaders -not just within the AEC complex, but in all of industry.  A “culture of safety” was established at Rocky Flats before DOE ever thought of the term.  In 1970, the Operational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created within the Department of Labor, effectively taking NSC out of the picture.  OSHA used different measuring sticks and reporting systems, so it was hard to compare the Rocky Flats performance after that time.

One of the hardest things to understand is why the public, encouraged by news media, seems to feel that Rocky Flats employees were either stupid or suicidal.  The reasoning goes like this:  if some hazardous incident should occur, the individuals at greatest risk are those involved in the immediate operation; the next risk, reduced by a factor of ten or more, is to those in the same building; and then individuals on the remainder of the plant site are at risk, reduced by another factor of ten; and finally, the risk to the general public, miles away, is reduced by a another large factor.  So that means that if there is indeed any significant risk to the public from an operation, the risk to the individuals conducting the operation must be a thousand times or so higher.  To accept any significant risk, especially in view of the culture of safety discussed above, a person would have to be either stupid enough to not see the risks, or suicidal so that he ignores the risk.  I knew a lot of very intelligent people at Rocky Flats: PhDs in Chemistry, Nuclear Physics, Metallurgy, etc., MBAs and other college degrees.  I knew a lot of other average Americans; pipe fitters, carpenters, machinists, electricians, secretaries, clerks, guards, and so on.  I knew people I did not always agree with, and some I did not even like, but I never met anyone that I thought was stupid enough to perform a job that he thought was unsafe.  They would not have been hired.  Similarly, I never met anyone that I thought was suicidal.  So I would have thought that if the public understood that Rocky Flats operations were being conducted by competent people who understood their jobs and recognized any hazards but were still willing to proceed, the risk to the public was insignificant.

In a similar vein, I never knew anyone at Rocky Flats who lived like a hermit in a cave in the mountains.  Instead, off the plant site, we were all members of the general public, living, for the most part in typical neighborhoods in the Denver metro area.  We went to the mall, attended church, took our kids to little league games, rooted for the Broncos, just like everyone else.  It is just not reasonable to suggest that we would expose our neighbors, our friends, our families to any significant hazard from our professional activities.

I have touched upon just a few of the points that seem to be at the heart of the general public’s feelings about Rocky Flats.  The greater subject is so extensive and complex that it is impossible to cover in much less than an encyclopedia.  I would summarize my feelings by saying that I feel very strongly that the facility was well managed and well operated, and played a very important role in protecting our national security.  Some incidents occurred which were unfortunate, but at no time in those incidents was there any significant threat to lives or property in the Denver area.  There was never a “radioactive cloud sent over Denver” or “close to a nuclear catastrophe” as quoted by some imaginative writers.  But there were some great technical accomplishments achieved there, in areas assigned by the AEC/DOE.  I am proud of my career there, and do not feel a need to apologize to anyone for it.

2 thoughts on “Guest Posting about Full Body Burden

  1. You have your head in a barrel! My childhood friends and my church are in the Red Zone. Not a family in my church has been untouched by the plutonium spray and leakage. My family of 8 raised in the pink zone all have thyroid disorders. All appearing in the same year, along with chronic fatigue and rheumatoid arthritis. Sick since age 30. The plant was idiotically managed and polluted a pristine environment for 200,000 years. Give or take. You did good work there. But this is an ugly legacy for our generation and the next and the next.

    • I will reply for the “guest blogger.” Thyroid disorders (such as those in the downwind area of Chernobyl) are caused by radioactive Iodine, which was not involved in anything Rocky Flats processed. I believe the people of Rocky Flats were amazingly careful to control dangerous materials to protect their neighbors and their families. The State of Colorado did an exhaustive investigation that lasted several years and spent millions of dollars to hire the best experts available. The results are available at One report they published was that people had a much smaller chance of developing cancer from what Rocky Flats left behind than they did of being hit by lightening.

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