Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Raiders of the lost archive

Relocating the Rocky Flats archive to Los Alamos ensures we will learn from history, not repeat it.
July 6, 2020
A large warehouse full of wooden crates.

The Rocky Flats archive is not unlike the warehouse in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, shown here.CREDIT: Lucasfilm/Paramount

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“It’s like that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.”- Joe Watts

By Katharine Coggeshall

Hundreds of boxes sit in a vault in the Denver Federal Center, each filled with hard copies of data, reports, laboratory notebooks, welding procedures, and technical illustrations. The boxes came from the Rocky Flats Plant in Golden, Colorado—a behemoth manufacturing hub that churned out the majority of the nuclear weapon pits (plutonium cores) that still exist in our nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. From 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats produced those fissile cores and documented everything along the way. But when Rocky Flats shut down in 1989, following a dramatic raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of that pit-production knowledge was boxed up, sent to a vault, and nearly forgotten.

“It’s like that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark,” explains Joe Watts, a technical project manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory, referencing the 1981 film that ends with the prized Ark of the Covenant being sealed in a wooden crate and stored in a giant government warehouse.

About 20 years ago, Frank Gibbs, who oversaw the closure of the Rocky Flats site, remembered the cumulative value of those boxes. Gibbs (who is now the Lab’s director of Actinide Operations) tasked Watts with retrieving the archive and relocating it to Los Alamos. “I went to Colorado to scan and digitize a portion of the technical reports,” Watts remembers. Watts took what he could, but the bulk of the archive had to be left behind.

The effort to relocate the entire archive was revived in 2019. This effort involved not just physically moving hundreds of boxes but also digitizing their contents and making them easily searchable. “Now that we have restarted work on fleshing out the archive library, we are working as fast as we can to provide access to the entire collection,” Watts says. “Today, we can quickly access around 25 percent of the technical reports electronically.”

An aerial view of the Rocky Flats Plant.

“Rocky Flats didn’t just make pits,” says Bob Putnam, “it was also home to premier actinide research and development, and all of that data is still relevant today.”

The timing is good, if not a little late. Los Alamos has been tasked by the National Nuclear Security Administration to produce 30 nuclear weapon pits per year by 2026. “Standing up pit production at Los Alamos from the Rocky Flats archive is like being asked to recreate the Sistine Chapel from da Vinci’s drawings,” says Bob Putnam, former program director (2006–2011) for Pit Manufacturing at Los Alamos and now an executive advisor to Gibbs. “We want to learn from the rich production history of Rocky Flats.” In other words, the archive provides a solid knowledge foundation, but making pits still requires skill, experience, and finesse.

“Even if we don’t follow their techniques exactly, the archive still offers us a well-worn path for how things were done in a facility known for efficient production,” Watts says. Reaping that expertise from Rocky Flats is especially important as swaths of the Los Alamos workforce retire and are replaced by a new generation with limited experience building pits. The archive helps fill the knowledge gap, even if its contents don’t bridge it completely.

“If you’re a 20-something, you’ve never been taught to write procedures for a nuclear facility; it’s nice to see how it’s been done before,” Watts says. “The Rocky Flats technical reports will certainly be an enduring resource to help maintain our national defense and lay the groundwork for future weapon production.”

In addition to providing baseline knowledge for pit production, the archive contains experimental test data from hundreds of nuclear weapons tests—data that can’t be replicated today because the United States no longer tests nuclear weapons. But that data is important because scientists can still incorporate it into their current research to help determine if a weapon is safe, secure, and effective. “That information is something both our adversaries and our allies would love to get their hands on,” Putnam says. “The data is irreplaceable and invaluable.”

But maybe “invaluable” isn’t quite the right word, given that Rocky Flats data was recently used to save the National Nuclear Security Administration $2.5 million. In this instance, a set of experiments were planned that—unbeknownst to many—had been performed at Rocky Flats years ago. When former Rocky Flats employees at Los Alamos recalled the experiments, the archival data was retrieved. “Within 20 minutes, we had 29 documents that were helpful on a question,” Putnam remembers. “A test that would have been $2.5 million has been redirected to something more valuable.”

Putnam and Watts, who are based at the Lab’s Plutonium Facility, are working with the Laboratory’s Weapons Research Services Division (home to the National Security Research Center, the Lab’s classified library) to build a searchable database that indexes the Rocky Flats archive with thorough metadata. The process will take several years, but the cost savings are already being realized.

Watts is quick to give his colleague credit for the progress so far: “That’s Bob—he’s the raider of the lost archive.”