Between 1952 and 1989, Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant — just 16 miles outside Denver — was the country’s headquarters for weapons of mass destruction. Workers there produced more than 700 plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs in the Cold War arsenal.

But in 1989, following allegations of radioactive groundwater contamination and illegally burned and lost plutonium waste, the FBI conducted its first-ever raid of a federal facility. That raid shut down the weapons factory and initiated a "special grand jury" proceeding to determine the culpability of the U.S. Department of Energy and its defense contractor, Rockwell (HCN, 3/30/98).

What happened next depends on who is telling the story. After interviewing FBI operatives, Rocky Flats workers and scientists for almost three years, Justice Department prosecutors forced a plea bargain, citing a lack of evidence. That plea bargain eventually opened the door to Rocky Flats’ new identity as a 6,000-acre wildlife refuge and recreation area. The refuge will open as soon as a contractor finishes demolishing buildings and planting native grass.

The government also fined Rockwell $18.5 million, but said there were no off-site hazards from operations at the weapons plant, and it dropped fraud charges against Energy bigwigs and Rockwell execs.

But, according to a new book, the 23 Colorado citizens on the grand jury must have attended a different hearing: Whistleblowers confirmed illegal plutonium burning and a series of other safety lapses, and experts reaffirmed extensive contamination inside and outside the plant. The Ambushed Grand Jury reaches the verdict that the Justice Department’s conclusions reflect a calculated surrender.

Authors Wes McKinley, the grand jury foreman, and Caron Balkany, a pro bono lawyer, show how Justice and Energy officials worked together to avoid government blame and exonerate Rockwell — and ensure the company could receive future federal contracts. The Ambushed Grand Jury presents this untold case of Rocky Flats and challenges readers to press for environmental justice for the millions of downwind and downstream metro Denver families at risk of toxic poisoning. For more information, visit www.ambushedgrandjury.com .

The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed
By Wes McKinley and Caron Balkany, Esq.
279 pages, softcover: $19.95.
The Apex Press, 2004.