Rocky Flats Fire

Sam Perry
June 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

What Was the Rocky Flats Plant Used For?

Fig. 1: Aerial view of Rocky Flats Plant before cleanup began. (Courtesy of the DOE. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Rocky Flats Plant was a nuclear weapons producing facility which operated from 1952 until 1992. Its primary output was the "Plutonium Trigger," which is essential to the chain reaction that sets off all US nuclear weapons. The plant produced over 70,000 while in production. These triggers cost more than $4 million apiece, and each one contained enough breathable Plutonium to kill every person on Earth. [1]

The Explosion

On Sept 11 1957, inside the Plutonium processing facility, a fire had started in an area that had been designed to be "fireproof." This fire grew and overcame many of the safety features the plant had in place to stop the spread of dangerous particles in such an event. Plumes of radioactive smoke were sent into the Colorado skies. When it was over, officials of the plant and those who worked within the Energy Department did not share the extent of the disaster or the dangers the radiation posed to surrounding areas. [2]

The impact of this fire has been extensively studied, with links being found to a spike in child Leukaemia rates in the area following the 1957 fire. [3] The Plutonium was also noted to have been found as deep as 13 cm into the soil, although the variability is high with the depth being dependent on soil chemistry. There was also a hypothesis that much of the pollution was due to leaking barrels of contaminated cutting oil that was left on the southeast corner of the plant. [4]

The Aftermath

In 1992 George H. W Bush announced the permanent closure of the facility. It represented the first closure of a nuclear weapons production facility in history. (See Fig. 1) Many challenges were faced, with Plutonium having a nuclear half life of 24,000 years many of the rooms were likely to be polluted forever. From 1989-95 no production work was happening in the facility, and interestingly the workforce doubled in size during that period due to the overwhelming number of documents and paperwork that needed to be done regarding new nuclear guidelines. [5]

© Sam Perry. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] K. Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Broadway Books, 2013).

[2] L. Ackland, Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (University of New Mexico Press, 2002).

[3] C. J. Johnson, "Cancer Incidence in an Area Contaminated with Radionuclides Near a Nuclear Installation," Ambio 10, 176 (1981).

[4] P. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy, "Plutonium in Soil Around the Rocky Flats Plant," U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, HASL-235, August 1970.

[5] K. Cameron and M. Lavine, Making The Impossible Possible: The Rocky Flats Story (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).