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Topic: Climate & Pollution     Department: Letters

Collateral damage

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Regarding your story on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant: I was new in Boulder in the early 1950s, when the announcement was made that this large defense plant would be located between Boulder and Golden (HCN, 2/16/09). Ever since, I have pondered the question, "Why would our government locate a prime defense plant (target) in the largest metropolitan area between the Mississippi River and the West Coast?"

To appreciate how strategically bad it was to locate a nuclear weapons plant in the Denver area, consider the world situation in the early 1950s. World War II had recently concluded, and much of that war was characterized by the Nazis bombing British cities and the Allies bombing German and Japanese cities. Those civilian populations were bombed for two reasons: (1) It was easier to rebuild laboratories than to replace dead scientists, engineers and workers; and (2) it was hoped that the surviving civilians would persuade their governments to surrender. The Cold War dominated the early post-war years, and fleets of bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the images of adversaries bombing each other's cities remained strong in everyone's mind. Thus Boulder, metropolitan Denver and the communities in between could all be seen as targets for aerial bombardment that was aimed at destroying the critical defense plant at Rocky Flats. 

I am certain that a factor in the government's decision was that the Department of Defense had built the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in a remote site. As a consequence, it had to provide housing, utilities, fire protection, schools, etc., for the scientists and engineers in their new community, and all of this municipal infrastructure cost the Department a bundle. In contrast, if the Department located the plant in a metropolitan area, the taxpayers of the surrounding communities would absorb all of these costs. Indeed, after the announcement of Rocky Flats, local business and political leaders were ecstatic over the several thousand jobs the plant would bring. As in Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, the businesspeople knew that they would benefit from the destruction of the "commons," while the costs of the required utilities and community services and the long-term costs of the effects of the plant would be borne by the surrounding communities.

Albert A. Bartlett
Boulder, Colorado

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