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The Critical Mass Laboratory at Rocky Flats

Robert E. Rothe

Nuclear Science and Engineering / Volume 145 / Number 2 / Pages 161-172

October 2003

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The Critical Mass Laboratory (CML) at Rocky Flats northwest of Denver, Colorado, was built in 1964 and commissioned to conduct nuclear experiments on January 28, 1965. It was built to attain more accurate and precise experimental data to ensure nuclear criticality safety at the plant than were previously possible. Prior to its construction, safety data were obtained from long extrapolations of subcritical data (called in situ experiments), calculated parameters from reactor engineering "models," and a few other imprecise methods. About 1700 critical and critical-approach experiments involving several chemical forms of enriched uranium and plutonium were performed between then and 1988. These experiments included single units and arrays of fissile materials, reflected and "bare" systems, and configurations with various degrees of moderation, as well as some containing strong neutron absorbers. In 1989, a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) caused the plant as a whole to focus on "resumption" instead of further criticality safety experiments. Though either not recognized or not admitted for a few years, that FBI raid did sound the death knell for the CML. The plant's optimistic goal of resumption evolved to one of deactivation, decommissioning, and plantwide demolition during the 1990s. The once-proud CML facility was finally demolished in April of 2002.

 
 
 
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