Lifting the veil of secrecy

  • DEADLY DRUMS: Thousands of barrels of nuclear waste, many of which corroded and leaked, were stored on the grounds of Rocky Flats near Denver

    Rocky Flats/DOE, 1962

Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, by Len Ackland, The University of New Mexico press. Hardback: $34.95. 308 pages.

Most people know that the Cold War spawned a number of nuclear bomb manufacturing facilities in the spacious American West - places like Hanford in eastern Washington state and Rocky Flats just outside Denver, Colo. Some people know that these facilities now have pollution problems that are costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year to clean up. But few people really know the life history of these federal plants - how they were conceived, how they grew, matured and died.

One person who does is Len Ackland, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In Making A Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, Ackland gives us a comprehensive and contextual look at one of the most interesting facilities, Rocky Flats, where workers handled deadly plutonium to make the hockey puck-sized cores that detonate our nation's arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The view Ackland shows us is nothing short of scary. Rocky Flats was built and operated before we knew how to handle nuclear and toxic waste, and the managers who ran it were under intense pressure to produce bomb cores at break-neck speed to keep up with the Russians. One of the most chilling episodes was the 1969 fire at Rocky Flats, which nearly caused a Chernobyl-scale disaster on the Front Range. Ackland documents dozens of equally dangerous situations and events which the public never knew about. The veil of secrecy surrounding Rocky Flats was real and, as Ackland powerfully concludes, it was only torn apart when the Cold War itself came apart.

But Ackland's book is far from sensational. Instead, through careful research and dozens of interviews with plant workers, neighbors, nuclear protesters and federal officials, he tells us a story that makes sense of a period of fearful madness.

Paul Larmer is senior editor at HCN and edits Writers on the Range.

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