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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Rocky Flats (p. 431)

From chapter "Corporations, Cops, and Hungry Ghosts"

Several years ago I did some research on Rocky Flats, in Colorado, where Rockwell International designed and built plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. Plutonium is one of the most dangerous materials known. The best estimate for plutonium’s LD-50, or the dosage at which 50 percent of the victims die, is around ten nanograms. Plutonium metal is extremely combustible, and will combust spontaneously. This happened in 1969, at Rocky Flats, causing the United States’s most expensive fire to the time, measured in monetary cost of equipment destroyed. More than 90 percent of the plutonium aerosols produced in that fire were of respirable size, “ideal for entering the lungs and lodging there.”

The prevailing winds along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are from west to east. The winds blow through mountain canyons onto the plains, past Boulder, past Lousiville and Lafayette, past Broomfield, and into Denver. Sometimes, usually in the winter, but occasionally at other times of the year, winds exceed one hundred miles per hour, breaking windows, tearing off roofs, lifting picnic tables, and, of course, carrying all kinds of dust.

In the early 1950s, the military decided to build a nuclear weapons plant on a plateau, called Rocky Flats, just west of Denver. The decision was greeted jubilantly by the corporate press: The Denver Post’s front-page banner headline read: “There is Good News Today: $45 million A-Plant Near Denver.” The newspaper did not mention the presumably not-so-good news that this “A-Plant” was to be built directly upwind of the majority of the Post’s readers.

Nor was the public informed of the full monetary cost to construct the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, which was not $45 million but instead closer to $240 million (never mind the full costs of operation, including decommissioning, clean-up, health care, and so on, which are inestimable). Nor was the public told that the plant, which was to be run by Dow Chemical, would routinely handle tons of plutonium.

The first major fire at Rocky Flats occurred in 1957, as some of the plutonium “skulls” in Building 771 spontaneously combusted. Although the area was supposed to have been designed to be fire-proof, flames quickly jumped out of control. Soon, plutonium filters on the smokestacks combusted, sending a black cloud three hundred feet into the air. When carbon dioxide failed to quench the flames, firefighters decided to use water. Their decision was a reluctant one, both because they knew water would destroy equipment costing millions of dollars and because the vaporized water might carry even more plutonium toward Denver. At no time during the thirteen-hour fire did plant officials warn police, schools, health departments, or elected officials. There were no plans for evacuation, and local ranchers were not notified.

Between fourteen and twenty kilograms—equaling the potential for seven hundred billion cases of cancer—-are estimated to have burned directly in the fire. This is in addition to the plutonium contained in the smokestack filters, which also burned. The filters, which had never been changed in the four years the building had been operating, were estimated to have captured thirteen grams of plutonium each day, meaning it is possible that as much as 250 kilograms of plutonium was blown toward Denver that day. An actual release only one-tenth this size would still have been enough to give each of the 1.4 million people in the Denver metropolitan area a radiation dose one million times the “permissible lung burden.” In addition, the thirty thousand gallons of water used to put out the fire escaped, to irradiate local streams, the water table, and municipal water sources.

That was not the only time Rocky Flats burned; for its first twenty years, the plant averaged ten fires per year, in addition to explosions, radioactive spills, and other contamination incidents. Such was the course of normal operations. On May 11, 1969, buildings 776 and 777 erupted into flames. This time the radioactive smoke was so thick that firefighters were “forced to crawl out along exit lines painted on the floor.” Eventually, the fire came under control, but only after a metric ton of plutonium had burned.

The accidental fires were not the only form of radioactive release from the plant. Thousands of drums filled with plutonium-contaminated oil were routinely stored in fields near Rocky Flats. More than a thousand of these were burned in the open air, as, first, Dow, and, later, Rockwell (which took over operations in 1975) ordered “routine intentional burnings.” Other barrels were simply buried. Faced with the possibility of exposure, one plant official suggested telling the public that the radioactive hills created by burying these wastes were actually Indian burial mounds. Barrels, neither burned nor buried, were left to corrode and leak. As Melinda Cassan, part of a Colorado governor’s council on Rocky Flats, stated, “It turned out they leaked about eleven curies [about 176 kilograms] of plutonium into the ground. If properly distributed, it would be a lethal dose to every human being on the planet.” Rockwell took to routinely disposing hazardous and radioactive wastes by calling them “irrigation” and spraying them continuously, even in winter, onto fields surrounding the plant. Testimony before a grand jury revealed that “Rockwell’s spray irrigation practices resulted in sheet runoff of the sprayed effluent into Woman Creek and Walnut Creek.” The wastes “ultimately . . . flowed downstream to municipal water.”

The surrounding landscape is hot. One mile east of the plant, radiation levels are four hundred times higher than they would be from fallout alone, and just outside the fence, levels are fifteen hundred times higher than would be expected. Such radiation levels are bound to cause mutations. Lloyd Mixon, a farmer who lived his whole life in Broomfield, six miles from Rocky Flats, told of a hairless calf born with a body full of a watery substance and a liver “three times normal.” He told of another calf born dead whose tissue tested similar to cows experimentally dosed with radiation. He told of pigs born with “nose and mouth twisted, where they’re not able to nurse,” and “with eyes that were not like they’re supposed to be.” He told of “chickens with no eyes,” and “beaks like needles,” and of chickens whose “legs have been so badly twisted and turned that they were unable to kick out of the shell. We had a chicken hatch with the brains right on top of his head.” He and his neighbors have seen infertile pheasants, and they’ve seen “lambs born with the guts, or the insides hanging out.

[Some would] be alive.” They’ve seen kid goats born with growths on them, geese who suddenly stiffen up and die, and too many dogs who die of cancer. They’ve had years where every colt is born blind, and other years where colts are stillborn or deformed. They speak of a general loss of wildlife.

Humans, too, have suffered and died. The congenital malformation rate near Rocky Flats is more than 40 percent higher than the state average. The former director of the Health Department of Jefferson County, where Rocky Flats is located, studied cancer rates for the region. He divided the downwind area into four zones—closest to farthest—and found, after correcting for age, race, sex, and ethnicity, that male cancer rates in the zone closest to the plant were 24 percent higher than in the zone farthest away. Female cancer rates were 10 percent higher. Lung cancer and leukemia rates are approximately doubled.

From the beginning, the response by company and government officials has been to avoid safety measures and to lie. After the 1959 fire, which released between twenty and two hundred and fifty kilograms of plutonium, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) reports stated that there had been “no spread of radioactive contamination of any consequence.” The manager of the AEC office at Rocky Flats mirrored this line, allowing, however, that “possibly” some radiation, once again, of “no consequence,” had escaped.

After the 1969 fire, the story was the same. Rocky Flats officials insisted none of the metric ton of plutonium which had burned left the building, and refused to allow any outside investigation. Further, the AEC originally estimated damage at $3 million; actual monetary costs were closer to $45 million. When, in the 1970s, AEC and Colorado Department of Health officials discovered that lawns in Denver tested above danger levels for plutonium, they raised those levels by a factor of ten. And when, in the early 1980s, a Department of Energy epidemiologist found that too many workers at Rocky Flats were dying of certain types of cancer, Rockwell management and DOE officials “attempted to make it difficult for us to get those findings published. Since that time, the DOE has not allowed any more studies of plutonium workers anywhere.”

Safety conditions inside the plant were abysmal. During the more than two years it took hundreds of employees to clean up the radioactive mess from the 1969 fire, at least one janitor who refused to work with the radioactive materials was fired. An engineer who discovered that the duct work in many of the buildings was contaminated with “all the crud of the ages,” with “pounds” of “radioactive material” (he found sixty-two pounds in just one building) was fired for making this discovery. Later, a plant technician received an even stronger lesson about what happens to people who talk about safety: “I was working with an experimental product. This product made me very ill. And I later found out these symptoms were radiation sickness. I had really odd big bruises on my body that you could touch and they didn’t hurt. All the hair on my arms fell out. I was nauseated. I was vomiting. I had diarrhea for three weeks. I had this incredible, terrible rash on my skin. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever felt in my life, like the worst sunburn you have ever had.” When she complained, she was given even more dangerous assignments and told, “We don’t care what you have to do back there. We need four or five more products this week.” She determined to give testimony before a grand jury about the dangerous conditions inside Rocky Flats. One morning, two weeks before she was to testify, her supervisors called her in at 3:30 with an assignment to work in an unfamiliar room. She put on her protective suit, pulled new plastic gloves from the box, and put her arms into one of the boxes containing plutonium. One of the gloves had a pinhole in it, and radioactive fire-ash sprayed into her face. In her words, “My face, my respirator, my hair, my hands, my sleeves, everything was hot.” Two other employees began laughing and pointing at her. One said, “That’s what you get for making waves.”

Over the years, heavily armed security guards have kept trespassers out of Rocky Flats, including investigating scientists, citizens, agents of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Colorado Department of Health. When EPA and Department of Health officials requested information on conditions inside the plant, they were told it was none of their business. As Melinda Cassan made clear, the reason for keeping regulators out is simple: “They couldn’t get a permit to operate it legally. That’s true with most of the functions at Rocky Flats. And unfortunately it’s true with the weapons complex generally. If these facilities had to get hazardous waste permits for everything that they did, they wouldn’t do it. Department of Energy [which had taken over from the AEC as regulatory agency] understood that. Rockwell, the operator, understood that. That’s the reason that we had these environmental battles, is because the plant can’t operate in compliance with the law.”

Now, here’s the point, as it relates to the function of the police in our culture. In 1989, after a two-year investigation, seventy-five FBI agents raided Rocky Flats, where they spent the next nine days gathering 960 boxes of evidence. Although this may seem a huge raid, a comparison with another case may point out, once again, the priorities of our culture: More than a hundred FBI agents were assigned to investigate the Unabomber, and, when the primary suspect, Theodore Kaczynski, was arrested, federal agents searched his one-room shack for several weeks. To push this contrast further, the grand jury in the Rocky Flats case was disallowed from handing out indictments, although they wanted to, and when they went public with the information they had gained, the judge threatened to prosecute them. None of the people who irradiated Denver were ever indicted, much less served time. Ted Kaczynski is serving life without parole. The point is that the three people murdered by the Unabomber were not killed in the service of centralized power—the murders did not manifest the desire of the culture as a whole (and especially its leaders)—and therefore they were punished. Because the murders committed by Rockwell, the Department of Energy, and so on, do serve to further centralize power, so-called attempts to bring accountability were, and are, nominal.