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Nuclear whistleblower.

Whistleblowers will be dealt with severely and completely," said William Weston, third-in-command at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Complex, one week after the FBI raided the plant in June 1989.

His words would alter every aspect of my life forever.

Soon after I began my career in the radioactive or "hot" side of Rocky Flats in January 1984, I learned that there were significant differences between the procedures set forth in the manuals and what actually occurred in my area of plutonium recovery. I found that I was recording activities we should not have been engaging in--for example, turning off the valves at the site gauges on the high-level feed tanks when the inspectors came around. This gave the inspectors the impression that the tanks were empty, since no liquid showed through the glass.

I also recorded careless health and safety practices, such as the time in March 1987 when I was sucked into a glovebox to my waist. Someone had not bothered to replace the defective band holding the bag on the glovebox port. I went to the body counter and came up positive in americium, a deadly daughter-product of plutonium. It was written off as a statistical error of the machine.

Production took priority over everything else. If a radioactive spill occurred outside the glovebox, plastic was taped to the boxes so that the workers could continue operations. Many workers received defective badge counts or NO CURRENT DATA AVAILABLE counts when their badges read too high.

I was a staunch proponent of worker health and safety. In 1987, when the union put off consideration of a serious safety problem, I typed up some of my journal and filed a complaint. There was a phony investigation that never looked into the safety issues at all. The company that managed Rocky Flats for the Department of Energy, Rockwell International, wrote the matter off as sexual harassment and concluded I had made the entire thing up. Two months later, Rockwell received an $8.6 million award from DOE for safety and management excellence.

In 1989, I was assigned to work with a product developed in an experiment that had been shelved twenty years before. Management was excited about this material, and I was told to "keep the operation running until it falls apart." Despite many protests about the lack of safety precautions, I was ordered to produce more, and was warned that my job was on the line. Soon I developed odd-shaped bruises on my upper torso and painful, red sores on my skin. I suffered nausea and diarrhea off and on for three weeks. I was fatigued and felt "very old behind my eyes."

These, I learned, were classic symptoms of radiation sickness, but management said I was reacting to the caustic in which coveralls were washed. When my union safety committee member went to Rockwell and the Department of Energy representative on site, he was told that Rockwell does not recognize the skin as an organ.

In June 1989, the FBI raided Rocky Flats. One charge was that Rockwell had engaged in illegal incineration. I was concerned because my crew and I had been working at the incinerator in question. I went to management to ask for the documents we had signed for that day, to be sure that we hadn't unwittingly done anything illegal. Management went into an obvious state of panic--which intensified when it found out about my journals and my intention to testify to the grand jury looking into safety violations. That's when William Weston told us that whistleblowers would be dealt with "severely and completely."

A few weeks before I was to testify, someone poked a hole in my glovebox glove. Plutonium and americium-contaminated ash from a 1969 fire at Rocky Flats puffed into my face. I reached for a bottle of material through the gloves, setting off SAAM (Selective Alpha Air Monitor), the alarm that detects airborne radiation. I pulled my hand out of the glove and monitored it on the device attached to the box. My surgical glove was contaminated. I removed it and donned my respirator. With a co-worker, Karen, I headed for the door. As we walked past another SAAM, it, too, went off. My hair, face, neck, arms, sleeves--everything was contaminated. It was up to Karen to get help. I stood alone in the room, with a contaminated respirator on my contaminated face.

I had a strange metallic taste in my mouth, as if I were sucking on a penny. Alarms kept sounding all around me. If I were to move, I would track the contamination everywhere, making matters worse. About fifteen minutes later, a radiation monitor came yawning and stretching down the hall. It bothered him that Karen had awakened him and that it was "the incinerator girl" that had gotten hot.

I put on paper coveralls to be transported to the decontamination room. While I waited, two workers from the previous shift came down the hall, laughing and patting each other on the back. One of them said to me, "That's what you get for making waves."

That was only the beginning of a campaign of harassment. I was chased on the highway by a private investigator hired by Rockwell. There were incidents of valdalism at my home. My mail was tampered with. Eventually I began to fight back. I installed a video camera in an upstairs window and taped unusual telephone messages.

The union members who attacked my credibility so viciously four years ago are now saying the same things I was saying then. "The company doesn't care about our health and safety," they complain. I have news for them--neither does DOE. There is no record of health and safety violations because there are no regulations to violate. Congress exempted the Department of Energy from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and told DOE to make its own rules.

The grand jury did find evidence that the incinerator ran illegally, but the Department of Justice plea-bargained away Rockwell's conviction. Grand jurors came forward to protest, and the Department of Justice is now investigating them.

Nearly four years after shutdown, Rocky Flats has not even developed a cleanup plan. The contamination will be around for 24,000 years.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Journal Entry
Author:Brever, Jacqueline
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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