From 1952 to 1989, almost all of the plutonium pits for U.S. nuclear weapons were manufactured at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado. Although Rocky Flats was shut down due to violations of environmental law, the expertise of many who worked there is an important resource for Los Alamos National Laboratory as it prepares to produce 30 plutonium pits per year by 2026.
National Security Science spoke with five former Rocky Flats employees who are now employed by Los Alamos about the ways in which their time at Rocky Flats informs their current work.
Frank Gibbs, senior director of Actinide Operations, Actinide Operations Office
Frank Gibbs took a job at Rocky Flats in 1984 and worked there until 1998. During that time, he manufactured components for underground weapons tests, served as lead plutonium development engineer on the W88 warhead, and even earned his PhD from the Colorado School of Mines, just 10 miles up the road from the plant, in Golden, Colorado.
Gibbs worked at Los Alamos from 1998 to 2000, then returned to Rocky Flats to help shutter the facility. “I was there until the day we closed the gate in 2005,” he says. He was proud to have helped close the plant “in record time and with a fantastic safety record.” He returned to Los Alamos in 2018 as a member of the Laboratory’s senior leadership team.
“The pit manufacturing experience from Rocky Flats was key for me,” Gibbs says. “And as we decommission old equipment in PF-4 to replace and upgrade, the cleanup and waste experience when we closed Rocky Flats has been invaluable.”
After 37 years in the nuclear industry, Gibbs retired from Los Alamos in October 2021. “Frank provided tremendous leadership and dedication to improving overall performance of our plutonium missions at Los Alamos,” says Dave Eyler, associate Laboratory director for Weapons Production. “His combination of technical knowledge, organizational skill, and humor will be missed, and we congratulate and thank him for his years of service to our country and the Lab.”
David Olivas, plutonium metallurgist, Actinide Operations Office
In 1978, after earning a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso, David Olivas was hired by Rockwell International, which at that time operated Rocky Flats. During his 12 years there, Olivas was promoted to manager of plutonium metalworking. “The plutonium components for all of the weapons that are currently in the stockpile came through the shop I ran,” Olivas remembers. “I am very proud of this contribution to our nation’s security.”
Olivas left Rocky Flats for Los Alamos in 1989, shortly after earning his PhD from the Colorado School of Mines. As plutonium fabrication section leader, he led the Laboratory’s fabrication of prototype pits for use at the Nevada Test Site prior to the United States’ 1992 testing moratorium. He retired in 2006 after 17 years at the Laboratory but has since returned as a contractor. “My focus in my current position is passing along as much of the knowledge that I garnered over the years to the next generation,” he says.
Julie Geng, criticality safety analyst, Nuclear Criticality Safety group
In 1990, Julie Geng was unhappy in graduate school. When her mother—who lived in Colorado—asked Rocky Flats to send Geng a job application, Geng decided to humor her mother by applying. When she was selected for an interview that coincided with Thanksgiving, “I got Rocky Flats to pay for a trip home for the holiday,” Geng remembers. “Then, when they offered me a job in 1991, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come back home to Colorado.”
Geng worked at the plant for 14 years, helping to develop the Criticality Safety group and bring documentation of criticality safety limits up to a newer standard. Geng now works at Los Alamos as a contractor and says that criticality safety standards at the Laboratory are being developed to a higher level than they were at Rocky Flats.
“Although I never got to see Rocky Flats in full production mode, we did still have to handle a lot of items that were produced during the Cold War and disposition them,” Geng says. “I’ve been able to use some of those experiences to help me understand the processes performed in PF-4 and relate those experiences to my coworkers.”
John Guadagnoli, senior supervisory watch, Business System Integration group
A New Mexico native, John Guadagnoli earned his bachelor’s degree from New Mexico Highlands University. In 1982, while studying at the Colorado School of Mines, he was hired by Rockwell International to work as a metallurgical operator in foundry operations, where he learned how metals are blended for pit manufacturing. Guadagnoli remained at Rocky Flats for 23 years, acquiring numerous titles and supporting various projects. He also helped decommission the site— including Building 771, which ABC’s Nightline described as “the most dangerous building in America” due to its radioactive contamination.
Having worked at Los Alamos at various points over the years, Guadagnoli returned to Los Alamos in 2012. In his current role, he mentors and coaches a new generation of Laboratory employees and supports the implementation of Conduct of Operations principles—a “philosophy of working in a formalized, disciplined manner with an aim to achieving operational and programmatic excellence” that applies to all Laboratory endeavors.
Cameron Freiboth, Weapons Productions support, Chief Operations Office
A native Boulderite, Cameron Freiboth started working part-time as a union laborer at Rocky Flats in 1985. After earning his undergraduate degree from the Colorado School of Mines, he joined the plant full-time in 1988.
During the 18 years Freiboth spent at Rocky Flats, he supported production of the B83 bomb and the W80, W87, and W88 warheads. He also served as development engineer on the W82 and W89 warheads. As Rocky Flats was cleaned up in the mid-1990s, he was responsible for the demolition of more than 100 nonnuclear facilities and structures at the site.
Freiboth most recently worked at Los Alamos as a contractor supporting the Pit Technologies division. Freiboth says Rocky Flats helped him gain experience in nuclear facility operations and nuclear materials production in a Department of Energy environment— all great preparation for a second career at Los Alamos.