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Rocky Flats and the power of forgetting

On nuclear legacy and the power of nature to adapt.

 

A few weeks ago, I took a drive to check out the Rocky Flats Lounge, a roadhouse between Boulder and Golden, Colorado, that once served as the payroll office for the now-defunct Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.

Twenty-five years ago this June, agents of the FBI and EPA raided the plant, finding contamination of soils and water and violations of anti-pollution laws. That raid led to the closure and eventual demolishing of the plant. The lounge, however, was left as a final remnant, so I thought it would be interesting to stop by and take a look.

Rocky Flats was once a hub of our nuclear weapons program, producing thermonuclear bomb triggers. It was also the site of two plutonium fires, at least one major toxic waste leak, and numerous protests. It was closed in 1992, designated a Superfund site, and, according to the government, it was then cleaned up. The sprawling 6,500-acre site is now the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, protected by barbed wire and “No Trespassing” signs.

Arriving too early for a bar visit, I drove instead to the refuge’s southern perimeter, where a housing development is being built. I parked and walked along the fence, just as a young woman in a University of Colorado windbreaker came walking by. Andy was a schoolteacher, and she and her husband had decided to move here because the houses were bigger and cheaper than most houses in other neighborhoods around Denver. She wasn’t too worried about nuclear waste, she said, even though a friend had teased that she would have “green-headed babies.”

Radon levels in her house were high, she added, but robins were building a nest on her porch, and she and her husband were happy enough -- so long as more development didn’t ruin the views. “I trust they got it cleaned up,” she said.

She moved on while I stopped at a pond where a couple of mallards were paddling. Thinking about what she’d said, I was struck by our easy ability to forget the past and “move on.” At the same time, I began wondering about our inability to imagine future disasters.

We’ve got apocalyptic myths to teach us. The Vikings, for example, had the story of Ragnarok, which begins when a ship made from the fingernails of the dead sets sail from Hell and ends when a giant and his fiery sword engulf the world in flame and a boiling sea. Christians have their own Armageddon of famine, pestilence and earthquakes that are just “the beginning of sorrows.” But these are all really parables.

It wasn’t until the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima that the vision of our own annihilation jumped from fantasy to reality. There it was, the mushroom cloud, 80,000 people gone, survivors poisoned and a city leveled. And if it could happen once, it could happen again, so we built so many bombs that no one would dare use them again. Today, the world’s nuclear arsenal equals more than 100,000 Hiroshima bombs. Rocky Flats was once the center of our effort. Now it’s a recovering prairie.

But as bad as the nuclear threat was, and is, we face a new one, planetary in scope and so far without metaphors that can help us comprehend it. Global climate change is slow moving, too huge to fully understand or explain, and it produces a new kind of sorrow that we have failed to acknowledge or mobilize against.

Earlier this year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said its Doomsday Clock was set at five minutes to midnight, meaning that humankind had moved even closer to annihilation than it had since the clock began ticking in 1947. The board of scientists said, “The science on climate change is clear, and many people around the world already are suffering from destructive storms, water and food insecurity, and extreme temperatures.” In a plea to world leaders, the writers said, “It is no longer possible to prevent all climate change, but you can limit further suffering — if you act now.”

Standing there on the edge of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, watching a hawk glide on the wind, I thought about doomsday, the ticking clock, about plutonium and mushroom clouds and toxic soil and teachers. And I thought about how nature adapts no matter what humans do.

By then, the afternoon had gotten late enough that it felt OK to head back to the Rocky Flats Lounge, which looked a little forlorn at dusk. I walked in to hear Johnny Cash on the jukebox, the big man who taught the willow to cry and the clouds to cover up a clear blue sky. Drinking a bitter ale, I heard the hum of Colorado commuters zooming by on the highway outside. I drank. Nature might be able to forget, I thought, but man sometimes needs a little help.

Brian Calvert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is an associate editor of the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.