Nancy Tuor: Rocky Flats Nuclear Cleanup
Whether cleaning up Rocky Flats or building a sustainable development in the Middle East, retired executive focused on collaboration and finding creative solutions to problems
Photography By Jensen Sutta
NANCY TUOR spent more than three decades and held various executive positions at the global engineering firm CH2M Hill, but one project in particular that she helmed gets more attention than all the others. Tuor helped orchestrate the cleanup and closure of the Rocky Flats plant near Golden, which was contaminated with 21 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium used in the production of nuclear weapons.
The now-retired executive realizes that Rocky Flats may well define her career. “If people said that was the only thing I’ve ever done in my life, that would be just fabulous because it was such an amazing 10 years. It was the project of a lifetime,” she says. “The first few years were awful. I got bomb threats at home. But in the last six months there, workers would come in and want a big hug. They had paid off their cars and credit cards and had money in the bank to send their kids to college. It was incredibly heartwarming to develop those kinds of relationships.”
The plant, which had produced thousands of triggers used in nuclear bombs, was shut down in 1989 following a raid by the FBI, which was investigating potential violations of environmental law.
In 1994, the Department of Energy sought a new contractor to take over operations at Rocky Flats. At the time, Tuor was working for CH2M Hill, which provided consulting, design, construction and operations services. She was managing CH2M Hill’s southeast operation when a colleague asked her to join a new team—a joint venture between ICF Kaiser International Inc. and CH2M Hill—that was preparing a bid for the Rocky Flats contract.
“The plant had been shut down and, basically, nobody was working. There were seven cafeterias that were full every day with hourly workers playing cards or cribbage or reading the paper because the contractor couldn’t wrap its mind around how to get work done in that environment,” she says. After Kaiser-Hill was awarded the contract, Tuor became a member of the 10-person executive team.
Twenty members of the Rocky Flats workforce and 20 people from the corporations put their heads together to determine how to move forward—and quickly. “They came back in eight weeks with a plan. There were some really bizarre ideas, like shrink-wrapping the plutonium buildings and imploding them,” Tuor says. “That was never going to happen, but the bottom line is they stopped thinking the old way and started looking at this with a different set of eyes.”
The federal government estimated it would take 70 years and $36 billion to clean up the complex. Kaiser-Hill completed the project in 10 years at a cost of $7 billion. The key to success, Tuor says, was to change the culture for the 6,000 workers at the plant. Leaders were brought in who “led from the floor,” not from offices. Even the CEO could be found in the buildings where the work was being done, clad in protective gear like everyone else. Parking places reserved for VIPs were eliminated. Incentive programs were put in place.
In a nuclear environment, rigid compliance to ensure safety was a necessity. “But we had to be incredibly creative, too, because much of what we did had never been done before. We were constantly experimenting,” she says.
Tuor managed different operations at the plant over the years, including the demolition of about 700 buildings. When the plant closed in 2005, she held the title of chief executive officer.
The workforce was incredibly proud of the role they played when the plant was operating, she says, believing their children didn’t have to go to war with Russia because of the work they had done. “Some might think that nuclear weapons are really ugly and wouldn’t want to be associated with them. But these people considered themselves Cold War warriors.”
Tuor says she learned while on the job, including at CH2M Hill, which was built around the power of team play. Nearly everyone who worked at Rocky Flats had “grit, determination and resilience. I liken Rocky to a stream trying to move through a course of boulders. Half of the time, the first route wasn’t there. You would have to find another way. It was transformative for me in learning how to look at different ways to get things done.”
After the cleanup was complete, Tuor returned to CH2M Hill, running one-third of the operations and heading to the Middle East as program manager for a sustainable town development in Abu Dhabi.
Before retiring in 2012, she helped set up the organization’s sustainability practice. “The whole nexus of water, energy and food is something that is critical to our existence.
And we are not even close” to a solution, she says. “We’re still arguing about whether there is climate change or not.”
Tuor has given numerous public presentations on the transformation of Rocky Flats from a “bomb shop” to a wild-life refuge. This summer, she was asked to consult with leaders of Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose mission is to ensure the nation’s security through nuclear deterrence.
She serves as a board member for several entities, including the Colorado State University Board of Governors. “I’m so impressed with the institution and its leadership,” she says of CSU. “It’s been a real highlight of retirement to have the time to commit to something that is so critical to our future.”
When Tuor turned 70 three years ago, she gave up competitive horse jumping, something she had done since the age of 27, often participating in 20 or more events a year. “When you jump, you fall now and then. As we age, we tend to splat rather than bounce. Since I had all my parts working, I decided it was a good time to give up that phase of my life,” she says.
She did not grow up “horse crazy,” but “I loved the technical aspects of riding. I loved having that partnership. It was a great mind cleanser, especially after a long day at the office.”
Tuor still gets out her road bike in good weather, lifts weights, took up tennis last summer and plans to spend more time around the dinner table with friends.
Now that she has more time in between her board work, her desire to travel has intensified. Tuor revels in being in different countries and cultures. She’s considering a couple of safaris and a visit to the Nile in Africa. And the Peruvian food and mountains of Argentina are calling to her.
“I’ve got a lot of energy and I just like being out in the world.”
Cynthia Pasquale is a writer living in Denver.