Rocky Flats: From Plutonium Pit to Playground?


The former Rocky Flats, where 70,000 plutonium pits for every warhead in the United States nuclear arsenal were made between 1952 and 1989, sits on the Colorado Front Range below the 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks of the Rocky Mountains and above the sprawling metropolis of Denver. Designated a Super Fund site after its permanent closure in the early 1990s, it’s soils are embedded with levels of plutonium (picocures) 1,250 times greater than the .04 background levels.

Perfect for a wildlife refuge and recreation area, right? The Department of Energy thinks so, and in 2007 transferred seven square miles of the site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retaining a smaller section right smack dab in the middle of the refuge as the only area that has actually seen contaminant removal and remediation. Eighty-one percent of the public that commented on the idea of allowing public access to the site rejected this proposal.

LeRoy Moore, a Boulder, Colorado-based activist, came to town (Santa Fe and Española) to talk about the 30-year old movement to shut down Rocky Flats, dubbed “Local Hazard and Global Threat.” Much of what he talked about is already to familiar to those of us living downwind from Los Alamos National Laboratory: accidents at the site that released contaminants at unknown levels; retaliation against whistleblowers or those who tried to document the contamination; inadequate clean-up measures; worker illnesses; and internal mismanagement. But chillingly, under the “Complex Transformation” decision by the DOE, LANL was designated the main pit production site of the country’s nuclear complex, although funding for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility where the pits will be built is in limbo: temporarily halted, but rearing its ugly head in Congress.

Plutonium, with a 24,110-year half-life, “Is not dangerous unless you happen to breath,” deadpanned Moore. It can penetrate the skin like gamma radiation or if inhaled or taken into the body through an open wound may lodge in the lungs, liver, or bone marrow. The results may be cancer, genetic defects, or harm to the immune system. A 1978 study conducted by Dr. Carl Johnson for the Jefferson County Health Department found that in the geographic area closest to Rocky Flats there were 16 percent more documented cancers than the Colorado average, 10 percent in the next outlaying area, and six percent in the next area, which includes most of Denver. Workers had eight times more brain tumors than expected, as well as triple the number of malignant melanomas. Johnson was fired in 1981. In 1987 Gregg S. Wilkinson of LANL published results of a study showing that some exposed Rocky Flats workers with internal plutonium deposits as low as five percent of DOE’s “safe permissible lifetime body burden” developed a variety of cancers in excess of what was normal for workers who had not been exposed. He published his report despite pressure from the DOE and was eventually forced out of the department.

Attempts to repress information extended to accidents that occurred at the site as well. In 1957, when Rocky Flats was under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, a fire released the largest single amount of plutonium ever over the city of Denver, destroying what were called the 903 Pads, where drums of plutonium had been stored for 10 years. On Mother’s Day, May 11, 1969, a fire in the industrial center of the site released high levels of plutonium. The DOE claimed that increased plutonium levels were due to 1950s atmospheric testing, not these accidents, which is reminiscent of LANL’s claims that plutonium found at the Las Trampas Lakes were “probably” from testing, not the Cerro Grande Fire.

The FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency actually took action and raided the Rocky Flats plant in 1989 citing egregious environmental violations. This resulted in a two-year investigation by a grand jury, which voted to indict Rockwell International, the corporate manager of Rocky Flats (the plant was always managed by a private corporation, unlike LANL’s tenure under the University of California), five of its employees, and three others working for the DOE. The justice department intervened, however, and negotiated a settlement with Rockwell where all charges were dropped and the corporation paid $18.5 million in fines (a smaller amount than what it collected in bonuses for meeting production quotas at the plant, despite the DOE’s ranking of Rocky Flats as the “most dangerously contaminated site” in the nuclear weapons complex (Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen).

Activists at Rocky Flats used a variety of strategies to expose its dangers and garner public opposition. From 1978 to 1979 “A Year of Civil Disobedience” saw protestors sitting on the railroad tracks when trains were due to leave the site carrying transuranic waste. They included Moore, Allen Ginsberg (whose Naropa Institute was based in Boulder), Daniel Ellsberg, and my friend and midwife Nancy Middlemiss, who grew up in Golden, directly downwind from Rocky Flats. In July of 1989, after the FBI raid, Moore and others began a water-only “Fast of Sadness” on the lawn of the capitol building in Denver, which lasted until August 9, Nagasaki Day.

That November the Secretary of Energy announced that production at Rocky Flats was “temporarily” halted, but as with the CMRR-NF at LANL, there were continued threats to reopen it. Activists continued to engage in civil disobedience and lobbied Congress to stop funding. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, President George H.W. Bush cancelled production of the only warhead due to be made at Rocky Flats in January of 1992.

Nuclear production morphed into clean-up when the DOE and EPA designed the “Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement” and put a cap on how much could be spent: $7 billion over 10 years. The Rocky Flats Future Site Use Working Group, which had formed in 1995 and demanded that the site be cleaned up to the “average background level” that was technologically possible, knew it would take at least $48 billion dollars to get anywhere near that goal.

None of the $7 billion has been spent on the land that is now under the management of the Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s been used for removal of buildings and soils on the profoundly contaminated 1,000 acres still under control of the DOE that will never be open to the public. As I stated at the beginning of this article, the 50 picocures level of plutonium that still lies in the top three feet of soil on the refuge is 1,250 times the .04 background levels, and we don’t even know what other kinds of contaminants were found on the site because the documents seized by the FBI in the raid have been sealed by a federal court order. Whistleblowers contend that a large section of the DOE contaminated site has never been cleaned up and that plutonium has migrated during spring run-off and continues to contaminate soils surrounding the site.

Much of the clean-up work was done by unionized workers at Rocky Flats who had the power of the union to demand good wages and safe working conditions, but some of the clean-up was contracted out and it’s unclear under what kinds of conditions those people worked. Because the work force at Rocky Flats was smaller than at LANL—averaging around 5,000—and because of the plant’s location near a large metropolitan area, its closure affected the local economy much less than it would if LANL were to close.

LeRoy Moore announced that a new book by Kristen Iversen called Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, which reveals in excruciating detail the dirty secrets of Rocky Flats, is now available in hard copy and eBook.



  1. An interesting update and reminder about Rocky Flats – for those interested, the conversion of military to wildlife spaces is not uncommon in the U.S. A geographer, David Havlick (UCCS) has analyzed the growing number of so-called M2W sites that flipped from high level military contamination or industrial sites to open space or wildlife refuges. Bill Cronon also wrote a great piece about Rocky Flats in the 1996 volume Uncommon Ground (for which he took a lot of flak from environmentalists and even sympathetic readers). Much like the military base closures abroad, the Rocky Flats facility disappearance simply pushed production elsewhere, creating new spaces of unintended consequences here and in New Mexico.

    • Eric, I read Uncommon Ground years ago but had forgotten Cronon’s discussion of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal; is that what you’re referring to? Cronon’s book made thinking about the social construction of nature accessible to the non academic reader. Much of the concern expressed by LeRoy Moore about Rocky Flats was the possibility of prevailing winds still carrying plutonium from the area proposed as a wildlife site to the downwind communities, which is, of course, one of the main concerns about LANL. We won’t know for many years if there will be long-term affects on the wildlife. As for “creating new spaces of unintended consequences” there’s been controversy within the anti-nuclear community about whether work should be consolidated at specific nuclear facilities to avoid replicating contamination elsewhere or if that’s a compromise that betrays the entire movement. Thanks for writing.

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