Rocky Flats – the Cold War nuclear weapons plant near Golden – has been gone for nearly a decade. But its destructive impact survives on the land and among the former workers.
Tonight at 7, Rocky Mountain PBS explores this legacy in a half-hour documentary on Colorado Experience.
Terrie Barrie, who leads the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, said many workers who believe they became ill because of toxic and radiation exposure from the site are still trying to get health benefits and compensation for illnesses linked to the weapons work.
“It’s been nine years since Rocky Flats closed, and many workers are still waiting,” Barrie said.
The challenge is that the federal government requires workers to document their own exposures, an often impossible task because records don’t always exist. More than 4,600 Rocky Flats workers or their survivors have applied to a federal compensation and health coverage program. Fewer than half have been approved.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s description of what it took to tear down the Rocky Flats Plant, a vast nuclear weapons production facility just off Highway 93 between Golden and Boulder, says much about the incredibly dangerous mess that it had become.
“Due to historical releases of hazardous substances, including plutonium, depleted uranium, organic substances and hazardous waste constituents . . . the cleanup required the decommissioning, decontamination and demolition of more than 800 structures; removal of more than 500,000 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste; and remediation of more than 360 contaminated and potentially contaminated environmental sites.”
And that isn’t all. While the plant itself is gone, the land that it covered, the so-called “central operable unit,” remains under DOE control because hazardous substance contamination remains. Weapons grade plutonium, after all, can remain in the environment for thousands of years.
Rocky Flats was at the heart of Colorado’s contributions to the Cold War effort, and workers there and in other plants involved in the manufacture and assembly of nuclear weapons were “cold warriors.” From 1952 until 1989, Rocky Flats workers used plutonium to build nuclear weapons triggers, called “pits.”
Those pits remain at the heart of America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The cold warriors paid dearly for the work that exposed them to the deadly carcinogens. In many cases they paid with their lives. The government belatedly recognized the cause-and-effect suffering, establishing a claims program that remains contentious for former nuclear workers and their families.
In the beginning, however, the plant was “cloaked in secrecy,” according to a state of Colorado historical account of Rocky Flats. “People living nearby were provided little information about the plant or its chemical and radioactive releases.”
A 1969 fire at the plant, still so secret that the blaze received only two paragraphs in the Rocky Mountain News, was later considered to be “the most costly industrial accident in United States history,” according to the state’s summary.
Things became so bad at Rocky Flats, by then managed by differing government contractors, that agents from the FBI, the Justice Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency raided the plant on June 6, 1989 to investigate allegations of environmental crimes.
That was the beginning of the end.
In October 2005, the DOE and its contractor completed an accelerated 10-year, $7 billion demolition and cleanup effort, leaving Rocky Flats as it is today, a still contaminated industrial site surrounded by a buffer zone that has become a national wildlife refuge.