This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise.
During the Cold War, when U.S. foreign policy centered around the nuclear arms race with the U.S.S.R., the federal government decided that weapons components should be built at separate sites. One location selected in 1951 was a windswept plateau between Highway 93 and Indiana Street in northern Jefferson County. There, the government contracted Dow Chemical to operate the high-security Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, which manufactured plutonium triggers — a “steel or beryllium sphere containing plutonium 239 that triggers nuclear fission when compressed by explosives.” (freedictionary.com). The triggers were shipped to another plant in Texas where they assembled hydrogen bombs.
From 1952 to 1992, Rocky Flats employed thousands of workers, many of them highly-paid, which energized the local economy. After 20 years of quiet operation, news broke about a major industrial fire in 1969. The public also learned about another fire in 1957 inside “gloveboxes,” glass enclosures where workers handled plutonium through holes equipped with lead-lined gloves.
Furthermore, it was revealed that, in the late 1950s and 1960s, barrels of waste had been stored outside and had leaked small amounts of plutonium onto the ground. Soil sampling detected plutonium east of the site boundary near area water supplies, causing increased concern and additional environmental monitoring. Clean-up efforts for these accidents were among the most expensive in U.S. history, and Rocky Flats quickly became the target of protesters.
Although the plant was given a National Safety Council Award in 1986, in 1989 the FBI raided the site after getting tips from whistleblowers alleging midnight burning of waste. Investigators instead found other environmental violations and Rockwell, which had taken over in 1975, was fined $18.5 million. In 1992, the plant’s mission was switched to cleanup and closure. Half the workforce (over 4,000 people) was laid off. The other half was kept on to participate in the ten-year, $7 billion clean-up. Citizens and officials from Broomfield, Westminster, Arvada, and other nearby towns closely monitored this process.
The plant’s 800 buildings and structures have since been dismantled and removed. Although some express ongoing concerns, in 2005 the clean-up was declared complete. Most of the site is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
More than ten years ago, interested folks began working to preserve the history and create the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, which will educate the public about this top-secret site. Ann Lockhart, president of the museum board, recently gave me a preview of this fascinating museum, located at 5612 Yukon Street in Olde Town Arvada. Although exhibit planning is not yet complete, volunteers have rescued a number of historical artifacts from the plant, including several giant gloveboxes, a contamination suit (looks like a space suit), decontamination equipment, signs, barrels, and an “alpha-counter” used to check hands and feet for radiation. The museum also has a large photo, video, and document collection that will be assembled into a research library. In addition, volunteers have already recorded 150 oral histories from those who worked there.
In 2008, the museum received a Congressional appropriation, procured by then-Senator Wayne Allard, with funds spread over a five-year period. Additional funds are needed to complete the exhibits and open the museum in 2013. For more information, check out their website at http://www.rockyflatsmuseum.org.