The Half-life of Memory

The struggle to remember the nuclear West

  • Decontamination and demolition workers in Plutonium Building 771, Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, 2002.

    A.W. Thompson, from his project, "Incendiary Iconography: The Legacy Of The Cold War In America"
  • Bags of contaminated soils on the 904 pad.

    A.W. Thompson
  • Sorting and packaging pieces leftover from nuclear weapons production at Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, 2001.

    A.W. Thompson
  • An excavated incinerator (above), at the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

    A.W. Thompson
  • Site of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, 16 miles northwest of Denver. Most of the site is now a wildlife refuge.

    Carmel Zucker

We stand at a barbed-wire fence, looking past a locked gate to a paved road that leads nowhere. Beyond a "Road Closed" sign and piles of dirt and rock, prairie grasses gone brown with the approach of winter drop eastward. In the distance, sheets of dust blow across the horizon. We have been told that behind the fence lies a stirring swath of High Plains ecology, a vast undeveloped acreage within one of the nation's fastest-growing suburban landscapes. We've been told that it's home to rare native xeric grasses and vital riparian habitat, to deer, elk, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, Preble's jumping mice, coyotes and badgers. And Wes McKinley, the Colorado state legislator who stands beside me peering through the gated entrance, has been told he cannot enter.

McKinley had followed protocol and asked the legislative staff at the state Capitol to request a tour of this land, now known as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. One refuge manager agreed. The next morning, however, another called McKinley back to say there weren't enough funds to allow him on site. "I said I'll pay. They said they don't have enough personnel. I said I can go on my own. They said they'd arrest me," McKinley recalled. "I said, 'How? You don't have any personnel.' They said they had patrols. I asked if I could go with one of their patrols. They said it's closed to the public."

Not that McKinley actually wanted to visit the refuge. If allowed past the gate, he told me, "I was going to bring a mask." McKinley is a rancher from southeastern Colorado and he looks the part, with the white hat, blue neckerchief and scuffed cowboy boots, the handlebar mustache and the sandpaper handshake. He has set foot on the property only a handful of times, but his relationship with it has been protracted and contentious. The land was once home to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, and McKinley was foreman of a grand jury panel that, nearly 20 years ago, investigated allegations of unauthorized disposal and incineration of hazardous waste at the plant. Unhappy with the outcome of the investigation, he has, in the years since, clamored relentlessly for more disclosure of the environmental crimes that occurred here.

In 2004, McKinley won a seat in the state Legislature. He used that public perch to call attention to what he calls the "cover-up" at Rocky Flats -- co-writing a book, The Ambushed Grand Jury, and expounding on the subject to any journalist willing to listen. That same year, he also participated in an oral history project sponsored by the planned Rocky Flats Cold War Museum to collect the stories of Rocky Flats employees, community leaders, activists, regulators, politicians and others who had been involved with the plant. Historian Dorothy Ciarlo and I conducted more than 90 video interviews for the future museum, whose board incorporated in 2001. The oral histories were essential to its mission of documenting the historical legacy of Rocky Flats, because what was made there remains a tightly held secret. To this day, it is illegal to mention the weight, circumference, mass or specific composition of the products that were made at Rocky Flats. In addition, the vast majority of the site's "artifacts" were so saturated with 40 years of radiological pollutants that it required thousands of workers to painstakingly dismantle and ship them to highly secured nuclear-waste disposal sites.

Between 1952 and 1989, Rocky Flats produced as many as 70,000 plutonium "pits" -- the small, fissile atomic detonators at the core of every bomb in the nation's nuclear arsenal -- on an immense industrial complex 15 miles northwest of Denver. It grew to become a veritable city, employing thousands of machinists, metallurgists, janitors, physicists, chemists, biologists, radiation specialists, engineers, secretaries, security guards, firemen, accountants and administrators. The plant's neighbors initially welcomed the jobs Rocky Flats brought. After a near-catastrophic fire in 1969 gutted two plutonium buildings, however, local leaders, concerned neighbors and anti-nuclear activists began to question the wisdom of having a nuclear weapons plant so close to a rapidly developing urban area. In 1989, after decades of mounting protest, the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency raided the site and found multiple violations of federal anti-pollution laws. Production was halted, and in 1992, the first President Bush announced that the plant would close for good.

Over the next decade and a half, the U.S. Department of Energy oversaw the decontamination and demolition of the plant's 800-plus buildings and structures. This was no easy task: At the time production ended, the site housed 13 metric tons of plutonium, some in liquid form and stored in deteriorating piping systems, underground waste lines and leaking storage containers, and a smorgasbord of some of the most hazardous substances on earth -- uranium, americium, beryllium, dioxin, along with carbon tetrachloride and a number of other acids used to dissolve plutonium. The $7 billion cleanup represented the largest and most complex nuclear site remediation in history. In December 2006, the DOE certified the cleanup as officially "complete" and divided the 6,500-acre site into two parcels: 1,300 acres in the contaminated industrial center were to be retained by the DOE for long-term surveillance and maintenance, off-limits to visitors; the outer 4,000 acres, meanwhile, would become America's newest federal wildlife refuge.

McKinley thinks that was a terrible idea. He maintains -- as do a number of former activists, regulators and retired employees -- that Rocky Flats poses a hazard to anyone who sets foot on the site or lives nearby. He believes that beneath the refuge lies a buried history that the public has every right to know but little recourse to uncover. As Rocky Flats and other nuclear facilities across the West recede into the past, he wants to make sure we don't forget.

Rocky Flats History...
Bill Petersen
Bill Petersen
Feb 18, 2009 12:21 AM
Having had the pleasure of serving on the Rocky Flats Citizens Advisory Board (RFCAB) in 2000, I had the chance to tour Building 771. The DOE considered 771 to be the most dangerous buildings in America. The opportunity to walk through a building that was essentially a nuclear ghost-town in-and-of-itself was a fascinating look into a facility that I grew up down wind from for 25 years. Building 771 had the "Infinity Room" and abandoned glove-box rooms everywhere in a state of instant abandonment and walking through that with other RFCAB board members really emphasized the dire need to demolish and clean up Rocky Flats as a facility.

It's unfortunate that your article didn't mention RFCAB. There were many dedicated people on that board who were more passionate about seeing the Feds and State clean up Rocky Flats than it seemed the Feds themselves were. There were times I had the sense that we were getting lip-service but many board members dedicated years to seeing that the average citizen had the opportunity to be an informative part of the clean-up process. RFCAB, I thought, did much in getting the State and Federal agencies to see the bigger picture of what Rocky Flats was and would become. I remember the heated discussions about how "clean" clean could be. I think what I find most unfortunate is that so many people in that area are willing to forget what happened at Rocky Flats and all the ordinary people who made the plant and subsequent clean up possible.

For some it is regrettable that some structures weren't left as markers for what happened on that site. But perhaps a memorial marker and interpretive center at the Wildlife Refuge could best guarantee the long term memories of Rocky Flats continue instead of an off-site museum disconnected from the contaminated grounds of Rocky Flats.
Pollution at RFP
Tony Zubricky
Tony Zubricky
Feb 08, 2010 04:02 PM
Even the Federal Government came to the conclusion that the RFP plant is too polluted to ever clean up. The buried it and walked away. The pollution is in the waste handling system, polluting the surrounding ground water, not in Bldg. 771. They fooled you too. We have proof-contact me.
"The Sisters" that worked against Rocky Flats
Susan Elofson-Hurst
Susan Elofson-Hurst
Feb 20, 2009 03:24 PM
My sister (Paula Elofson-Gardine) and I worked for many years to get the information out to the public and nearby neighborhoods to Rocky Flats what they were being exposed to. We would make our own flyers and enlist friends to help us take them door-to-door in the Countryside housing development - which was closest at the time. We would go to City Council meetings at Arvada and Westminster to inform them of contamination at Standley Lake. I was told by Westminster City Council that they would have me publicly censured and possibly put in jail for trying to incite the public. This apparently did exactly the opposite for me - it made me curious as to what the cities were hiding and appeared to be afraid of others finding out about.

We were at the planning commissions, open space council, realtor and chambers of commerce breakfasts, city councils, public comment hearings, county commissioner hearings, The Dose Reconstruction technical sessions, Technical Review group, Rocky Flats Cleanup Commission, Rocky Flats Environmental Monitoring Council meetings, standing around parking lots at King Soopers and K-Mart getting petitions signed, and of course at the legislature at the Capitol --we were everywhere!

We went to Jefferson County Open Space meetings when anything regarding Rocky Flats or new development plans were on the agenda to give public comment on plans. We would show up at North Metro Chamber of Commerce brunches, handing out our flyers or newsletters to members as they arrived (Kim Grice said I looked like a hostess greeting them). You could always tell when the members took the time to read what we wrote, as the manager would come out to ask us to leave.

Paula was the Chair of the Technical Review Group which consisted of representatives of the cities, DOE and contractors from Rocky Flats. That started to go south when after a lengthy presentation on what the contaminant level was in Woman and Walnut creek was - I asked since it had been such a dry year for precipitation, how were they getting their numbers? This was when it was admitted that they used "old" data for the calculations. Wow, they couldn't pass the "Red Face Test".

The Citizens Advisory Board was the DOE, CDH and EPA's idea to cut the both of us as relentless critics "out of the herd". When we were personally invited to a CAB meeting, we were NOT allowed to ask questions of the presentors, who smirked at us when he left.

We attended the Rocky Flats Dose Reconstruction Project meetings for YEARS. The name then was changed without fanfare to The Rocky Flats Health Advisory Panel (HAP), even though they never addressed health issues. There were VERY FEW citizens that attended those meetings, most were paid to attend; CDH, DOE, Kaiser-Hill, polluters and a public relations firm.

We tried four times to give a 3 volume copy of a lawsuit regarding specific contamination issues on the Church-McKay property. It kept getting "lost". They would always ask for "another copy" for the panel, which we would happily provide. The final time I insisted that we be given time on the next meeting agenda to present this valuable information to the HAP, which they did. Even though this was the first landowners sucessful lawsuit, none of the information found it's way into the final edition of the "Health Studies".

Berger & Montague won a multi-million dollar settlement for surrounding landowners in 2006. At the time our mother was being treated for breast cancer. Even though this was going on, Paula and I went to as many of the hearings as we could.

We got validation and vicarious thrill listening to some of the Rocky Flats homeowners case, when Sam Cassaday was testifying to our effectiveness in the many arenas that we worked in...we recognized ourselves in his testimony. If you want a copy of that please email us at

We have sent 120 boxes of our research to the CU Norlin library archives - the biggest contributors to date. Okay, we are holding back 6-8 boxes of our materials that we will end up copying for the archives that we will continue to use for the book we're writing on our experiences working on the Rocky Flats issues for 20 years!

This was a GREAT article and captured the "flavor" of the story behind the "ON-PAPER" cleanup.

Rocky Flats
Anne Waldman
Anne Waldman
Feb 22, 2009 11:22 AM
Thank you, Hannah Nordhaus, for the extremely salient and comprehensive article and the information it provides for an ongoing investigative epic poem- Iovis (literally "of Jove" a 800 page epic that takes on the subjects of patriarchy, war, memory, and language with the subtitle:"Colors In the Mechanism of Concealment"). I also appreciate the commentaries of others here, and those histories "in the struggle" and am certainly in support of the Museum and archive project, lest we forget... I favor, however, that it be OFF the still-dangerously contaminated site. I rode horses with my children at a ranch and farm - since abandoned - nearby Rocky Flats in the 90s - and recall the morning we arrived to see several recently newborn stunted animals- colt, lamb, goat - born hairless, crippled, and with one goat missing an eye. It's still a vivid memory. I also want to honor the poets- particularly Allen Ginsberg - from Naropa University and its Kerouac School community- who also made Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant a poetic and political focus and rallied through their art and performance to reveal its environmental crimes.
Anne Waldman