- The accelerated cleanup of Rocky Flats, the mothballed atomic bomb factory near Golden, always has been predicated on U.S. Department of Energy promises that the 2006 closure could be accomplished without sacrificing safety. However, as The Denver Post recently reported, DOE technical experts disagree about whether Rocky Flats can safely use containers called DT-22s to ship bomb parts containing plutonium.

Federal rules require plutonium shipping containers to pass a crush test. The rules assume the plutonium is being sent by boat, so, if the plutonium container floats, it must withstand being smashed between an ocean-going freighter and the dock. That's the crush in the crush test. Rocky Flats, however, is sending all its nuclear materials by truck or train, so some DOE managers believe the crush test isn't applicable to Rocky Flats.

When DOE was seeking a container large enough to transport plutonium bomb parts, it came upon something called a DT-22, which likely would fail the crush test, but which is certified to ship less radiaoctive wastes, such as highly enriched uranium.

The alternative would be containers called 3013s, which do pass the crush test and which Rocky Flats has used to transport plutonium metals and oxides - the ingredients in bomb parts, but not the bomb parts themselves. But the 3013s are about the size of an office trash can, so the bomb parts won't fit into them without first being sliced to pieces. That process, though, would expose Rocky Flats workers to significant radiation risks.

The bomb parts could, however, fit easily into the larger DT-22s, minimizing workers' radiation exposure. Although not up to the 3013's standards, the DT-22s are certified to handle nuclear materials and can survive fire, being dropped from a 30-foot height and being flung onto a sharp spike. The government used DT-22s to ship Rocky Flats plutonium in one case involving the federal unit that maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But DT-22s have never been used to move surplus plutonium parts.

Two years ago, Rocky Flats managers requested, and received, permission from higher-ups to exempt the DT-22s from the crush test on national security grounds.

While DOE granted the exemption, there's an important catch: Rocky Flats can't ship any surplus plutonium parts in DT-22s until DOE specialists in Albuquerque complete a safety analysis.

The analysis, due in late May, doesn't include a crush test. Even so, it's unclear if the DT-22s will pass. But until the analysis is finished, it's premature to blast Rocky Flats managers for wanting to send plutonium in DT-22s.

If the DT-22s don't pass muster, though, Rocky Flats will have to find an alternative container or devise ways for workers to safely cut up bomb parts to fit into the 3013s. Either option could take two or three years by DOE's own estimates, so either could delay Rocky Flats' closure. At that point, the public would have reason to publicly flog DOE.

While DOE has talked about options, Rocky Flats isn't actively pursuing them. The lack of a clear plan B is unacceptable. Since the DT-22s could fail the safety analysis, Rocky Flats must not put all its eggs - in this case, the radioactive kind - in one basket.