The struggle to remember the nuclear West

After toxic waste leaks, catastrophic fires and years of protests, Rocky Flats was raided by both the FBI and the EPA.


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"

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.

Bags of contaminated soils on the 904 pad.
A.W. Thompson

I interviewed dozens of former plant employees for the oral history project, and they invariably described Rocky Flats as a well-run, well-oiled machine that helped to safeguard American liberty. Those interviews were often most memorable for their very sameness. When asked about safety at Rocky Flats, former employees often began with a little joke: "I don't glow in the dark," they'd say. Then they would continue: "I've never worked in a safer place." They had a point: Rocky Flats had an impressive short-term industrial safety record and regularly went months without injuries to its workers. "We ran the plant for 40 years, and I think there were three deaths," recalled Ed Vejvoda, who joined Rocky Flats in 1952 and was chief of plutonium operations from 1976 to 1987. "Two were due to vehicles. … There were no deaths in the production part at all."

But Jerry San Pietro worked at the same plant for almost 30 years, and, although he too believed his career at Rocky Flats helped keep this country free, he begged to differ. When I interviewed him in 2005, he had been retired for a decade and was in his late 50s, with weathered skin, a shock of thick salt-and-pepper hair and an equally imposing mustache. He favored flannel shirts and work boots, and walked with a painful limp acquired after his hunting buddies dropped an elk on him five years earlier. San Pietro started as a janitor at Rocky Flats in 1966, just out of high school, after learning of a job opening from an uncle who worked there. For some time after he started, he had no idea what the plant did. "I knew it was something to do with radioactive material, but I didn't know what," he said. "One day my crew leader said, 'You know what they do back there?' I said, 'No.' And he took me behind the double door of the airlock, and I just went, 'Oh!' There was dryboxes and gloves and stuff I couldn't imagine."

After a few months as a janitor, he began taking night courses in chemistry and applied for a lab-tech position. Then, when the massive 1969 fire rampaged through two adjoined plutonium processing buildings, San Pietro enlisted as a radiation monitor, donning an Army assault mask with an oxygen canister and two eyeholes and trailing cleanup workers as they mucked through the radioactive stew of chemicals, plastics, acids and plutonium in the burned buildings. "They gave me an instrument and said, 'If it clicks, it's hot, and if it doesn't, it's cold. Go in there and tell people when it's hot and cold.' "

The radiation monitors were the eyes of the site, in charge of preventing and measuring contamination in the "hot" areas where the radioactive materials were processed. It was nerve-racking work. As the chemical operators handled highly reactive plutonium solutions and metals, monitors like San Pietro hovered beside them with clicking Geiger-counter-like devices. They monitored jobs throughout the warehouse-like buildings, listening for the crackling of their belt-hung monitors and the screaming of room alarms, and watching for less obvious signs of escaping radiation, like unmanned gloves thrusting outwards from the multi-story metal-and-leaded-glass "glove boxes," indicating that contaminated air was blowing into the room. "You'd find a barrel that (was) kind of wobbly, and you'd think, 'It's bending the bottom out,' " San Pietro remembered. "Or you'd be walking along and you'd find a whole bunch of green liquid on the floor, which was plutonium nitrate … and there was gallons of it running everywhere."

Once, walking through the building, he felt a drip on his head. "I took my probe and put it on my hair, and it went, 'Kchhhh!' -- infinity. Then I felt another drop hit on my shoulder. And I looked up, and there was a plutonium nitrate line leaking right above me." When something like that happened, he went straight to medical, where his hair would be shaved and his skin scrubbed with Clorox to remove the contamination. But San Pietro could report none of this to his family. "I could never tell them when something blew up or caught fire," he said. "I'd go home with bandages on me and they'd say, 'What happened?' I'd say, 'Well, I just got hurt.'"

Every employee at the plant would have been expected to provide a similarly vague response. It was the Cold War, after all. Rocky Flats was ringed by concertina wire, deserted ranchland and guards armed with submachine guns, and its very existence was, for many years, a secret. Potential employees underwent rigorous FBI background checks, and many received the highest "Q-clearance" security authorization. Like San Pietro, many were unaware of what the plant did until well after they arrived. They were not allowed to discuss their jobs with friends or family; workers recalled telling outsiders they made everything from Saran Wrap to glass doorknobs. Nor could employees share information with each other. "I would go on a special project, cleared for that project, and (my boss) wasn't," said Vejvoda. "I would come back and he would say, 'What did you do?' I said, 'I can't tell you.' "

This "compartmentalization," as it is known in intelligence circles, is a cornerstone of national security policy, limiting access to information to those who have a direct "need to know." Such secrecy is essential in the world of nuclear weapons; it is problematic, however, for those seeking to understand Cold War history, because it means that everybody, by design, saw only their small piece of the much larger story. This has made the task of memorializing such a furtive complex of buildings a challenging one: Rocky Flats' secrecy not only fragmented the plant's knowledge of its own processes, it also splintered its history. Radiation monitors like San Pietro, for instance, described a very different workplace from metalworkers who machined beryllium or the physicists in the lab or managers in the administrative offices.

Oral history is an attempt to record memories from an individual perspective, not an objective means of explaining exactly "what happened." When oral histories proliferate, however, those personal, subjective stories can combine to achieve a critical mass, creating a historical fusion of sorts that allows us to see the larger picture. And some of the people we interviewed did have a larger view. Nat Miullo, for instance, was an EPA inspector in charge of oversight of Rocky Flats in the 1980s. At times, he was escorted to inspection sites blindfolded to protect the secrecy of operations he wasn't cleared to witness. Over the years, however, "I found myself … in a position of knowing more about the operations of the plant than the actual people who worked there," Miullo said. So did Wes McKinley, who, as a grand juror, was privy to documents collected by the EPA and FBI after the 1989 raid and never released to the public.

And so did Jerry San Pietro. Over the years, San Pietro acquired a reputation for refusing to "buckle under to supervision." Despite intense pressure from his managers to keep production rolling, he did not hesitate to stop work on jobs he considered unsafe. Eventually, the union asked him to chair the Joint Company-Union Safety Committee, which monitored working conditions for hourly employees. It was in that capacity that he conducted his own oral history of sorts. And many years later, when the Energy Department proposed the creation of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, he found himself compelled to share what he had learned.

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

When I met Jerry San Pietro in 2005, he had been retired for more than a decade and had moved to Cripple Creek, 130 miles southwest of Rocky Flats. Although he now lived well away from the site and from any potential toxic plume that could spread from it, he remained concerned. So each month for two years, he drove three hours each way to attend meetings convened by the DOE to oversee the final stages of the cleanup.

The Rocky Flats cleanup could be considered an unmitigated success. Initial estimates pegged the effort at 70 years and $36 billion, but the company selected to remediate the site, Kaiser-Hill, completed the job in less than 10 years for a fixed sum of about $7 billion, thanks to a combination of imaginative thinking and technological innovation -- shipping the waste in larger, less labor-intensive configurations, for instance, and developing spray-on coatings that solidified to render contaminated parts less dangerous for transport and disposal. But the company also had some help from the DOE and Congress. By designating the site a wildlife refuge, the Energy Department was able to tailor the cleanup to protect a wildlife refuge worker spending 40 hours a week on site from a more than 1-in-500,000 chance of cancer in excess of normal -- rather than, say, a small child in a subdivision who lived and played in the dirt there. This "risk-based end state," as it is called, essentially tinkered with the definition of "clean" to allow Kaiser-Hill to aspire to a much lower standard, at a much lower cost.

Local environmental activists had problems with this on a number of fronts. First, they believed that exposure standards -- based mainly on cancer incidence data from Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- substantially underestimated the risks from protracted low-level exposure to radiation. They also believed that the regulators in charge of the cleanup disregarded evidence that plutonium is more mobile and dangerous when suspended in dirt and groundwater than previous research had indicated. And they worried that activities such as hiking and biking on the wildlife refuge would stir up particles of plutonium-laden dust. The activists recommended the site be cleaned instead to a near-"background" level that would protect a subsistence farmer living on the land and raising crops there.

Their arguments did carry some weight. In 1996, the Department of Energy and Kaiser-Hill agreed to allow up to 651 picocuries of plutonium to remain in each gram of Rocky Flats soil. After the locals reacted with outrage, they reworked the numbers, and in 2003 signed a final agreement allowing 50 picocuries per gram in the top three feet of soil, 1,000 at a depth of three to six feet, and no limit on how much plutonium is allowed to remain below six feet. That 50 picocurie number, however, is higher than that allowed in cleanups of other, smaller plutonium-contaminated sites handled by the DOE. In addition, many of the important production buildings were built underground, both to obscure them from sight and protect them from nuclear attack. They required a phenomenal amount of underground infrastructure, from waste storage areas to the miles-long tangle of pipes and process lines that carried solutions from room to room and building to building. "We always think of buildings going up," said Alice Brace, a fire inspector at the site. "In this case, the buildings went down."

Infrastructure was not the only thing hidden underground. Besides overseeing work with radioactive materials inside the factory buildings, radiation monitors like Jerry San Pietro also patrolled the grounds around the plant. Over the years, said San Pietro, "we found things" -- radioactive leach fields, buried plutonium hemi-shells, landfills and dirt-covered mounds containing toxic brews of plutonium-contaminated oil, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Whenever he found those "things," San Pietro's supervisors would castigate him. "You weren't supposed to be looking. That's not part of your job," they told him.

San Pietro's uncle, who worked at Rocky Flats in the 1950s and '60s, reported seeing a D8 Cat on the perimeter of the plant property scooping a hole so deep he couldn't see the machine below the rim. The uncle later saw workers burying barrels of waste in the hole. He also told San Pietro about a map of underground burials at Rocky Flats. When San Pietro served on the union safety committee, he asked to see the map. After he threatened a Freedom of Information Act request, management allowed him and another union leader to view it in a room without pen or paper. "When I saw the map laid out on that table, I was amazed at how much plutonium, americium, uranium, acetones and solvents were buried out there. There's that many burial sites, and they know what's in them, and they're leaving them there?" he said.

San Pietro's uncle died in the mid-1990s, and San Pietro believes himself to be the last hourly worker alive who had seen the map. After the cleanup commenced, he began asking his colleagues still on the job at Rocky Flats about the sites described on the map. He came to believe that there were no plans to clean many of the spots he found most troubling; some, he suspected, were in the proposed wildlife refuge, not the industrial area where the cleanup took place. He began writing to the DOE, to Colorado's congressional delegation, to the oversight panel and to protest groups, and traveling to cleanup meetings. "Rocky Flats," he told them, "is the largest unlicensed nuclear burial site in the United States."

The DOE and Kaiser-Hill have never denied the existence of underground contamination at Rocky Flats. They maintain that the site has been thoroughly "characterized" -- probed for radioactive hot spots based on documents, soil and water testing, and even rumors about where illegal wastes might have been hidden. They claim that all known waste trenches were remediated and that the cleanup standards were based on a broad scientific consensus about the immobility of plutonium in soil. The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have both signed off on the cleanup, and the DOE maintains more than 140 groundwater, surface water and soil monitoring locations on site. Since the cleanup was completed, they say, samples collected at surface water "points of compliance" on site have met all federal and state regulations for water quality. "The contamination outside the buildings was very well catalogued. We have over 6 million data points," said Joe Legare, the DOE's cleanup manager for Rocky Flats from 1996 to 2005. "It is the best-characterized piece of land certainly in Colorado, if not in the entire West. The records were very well kept in terms of burial trenches."

There are good arguments, moreover, to support the cleanup standards. The odds of dying from strolling across the most polluted parts of the Rocky Flats site are still far lower than the odds of dying from driving in the car to get there. And the expense of cleaning the site to "background" would be huge. "If you could analyze every speck of soil, you'd remove the plutonium," said Al Hazle, the Colorado health department's liaison to Rocky Flats from 1970 to 1999, who died in 2005. "But the feasibility of doing that many samples is just -- the national budget. Can't do it." Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm remembered that his administration spent $16 million cleaning up uranium tailings near Grand Junction "that might have caused one death every 10 years. Now you give me $16 million. … I would immediately cover all of the uninsured people in Colorado." Even Wes McKinley believes it is impossible to make the land habitable. "The best they could do is to cap it with concrete and pray it doesn't move," he said.

Years after they worked there, many Rocky Flats workers are sick. Some have berylliosis, a fatal lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust released by the machining of beryllium bomb components. Federal law requires that the government compensate Rocky Flats workers with berylliosis, because it is unlikely that they could have been exposed to the element anywhere but on the job. But many more have cancers that they attribute to their work at Rocky Flats, and the causes of those illnesses are harder to prove. Radiation is not the only cause of cancer, and worker exposures at Rocky Flats were poorly monitored over the years. San Pietro was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the youthful age of 48, and his doctor blames it on his work at Rocky Flats. Norman Warling's father, who also spent his career at Rocky Flats, died in 2005 of a bone cancer that his doctors believed was caused by exposure to plutonium. Neither received compensation. "How many people were killed at Rocky Flats, and how safe was it? They're saying two? I'm saying there's hundreds," said Warling, San Pietro's friend and a fellow radiation monitor. "Maybe it takes 30, maybe it takes 40 years after you're exposed to beryllium or plutonium for it to kill you."

San Pietro, Warling and McKinley fear that Rocky Flats is in a latency period of sorts, and that the contamination left on site, previously under the roofs of the buildings but now exposed to water and wind, will eventually migrate into groundwater supplies and erode and blow eastward with the fierce winds that wrack the place, rendering far more than the 1,300-acre industrial site unusable. "The contamination will move," said Warling, who worked at Rocky Flats from 1974 until the cleanup concluded in 2005. Among the last workers laid off, Warling said he saw crews dump three to six feet of dirt on contaminated areas in the final days of the cleanup, rather than excavating and removing the contamination. "Rocky Flats is not cleaned up," Warling said. "It's covered up."

And that, for now, is how it will remain. My interview with San Pietro marked his last attempt to influence the course of the cleanup. The drive was long and nobody appeared interested in his underground history of Rocky Flats. "I'm giving up," he told me. A year later, the EPA certified the cleanup as officially "complete," and in the summer of 2007, the site was handed off to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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

After weeks of effort, I finally get permission to tour the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, although the wildlife agency asks that I not bring McKinley along, because of what spokesman Matt Kales called his penchant for "media sensationalism." I go instead with wildlife managers Steve Berendzen and Bruce Hastings. Berendzen is thin and clean-cut; Hastings has a graying beard and softer edges. They drive me past a churning gravel plant and onto the refuge. We first head north, winding into a drainage that hides a decaying ranch house and a historic barn purchased and abandoned by the Atomic Energy Commission when Rocky Flats was originally built. A pond is iced over with the morning's frost. As we approach, a coyote sprints between two mule deer bucks stalking a beleaguered doe, then darts past a gnarled cottonwood and up a steep slope.

Berendzen and Hastings are biologists, far more adept at identifying wildlife than assessing nuclear cleanups. As we wind up and down the steep gullies flanking the site, they point out purplish clumps of big bluestem grass, a busy swirl of ravens. Finally, we arrive at a barbed wire fence with yellow DOE "No Trespassing" signs attached at regular intervals. A few boxy monitoring devices dot a riprap-lined holding pond. We climb along the fence until we can see the pancake-flat plateau where Rocky Flats' 800 structures used to be. There are a couple of bulldozers and a line of conifers, and then there is nothing, just acres and acres of level, tawny earth. In the distance, we see the subdivisions of suburban Denver. "The EPA and the Colorado department of health have determined the site is clean," says Berendzen, "and we accept that." Due to funding shortages, no work has been done to develop facilities for visitors. Should the money materialize, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to build six to eight miles of hiking trails on the land and open them to the public.

To discourage potential visitors, Wes McKinley has introduced legislation requiring that the refuge post signs stating that Rocky Flats was a "nuclear weapons" plant where "radioactive and other hazardous materials" were "used and released," and distribute pamphlets informing visitors that during the plant's operation, the DOE and its contractors "buried, burned, and sprayed plutonium and other radioactive and hazardous materials onsite." The first two times McKinley introduced his bill, officials from nearby cities, afraid of the possible impacts on local real estate prices and on the refuge, helped derail the legislation. This winter, it was killed in committee again.

Like much of Rocky Flats' buried history, the record of McKinley's grand jury panel will not soon be unearthed. The grand jury voted to indict a number of individuals who worked at the Department of Energy and Rockwell International, the contractor that operated Rocky Flats at the time, for environmental crimes. But Rockwell was permitted to plead guilty to lesser violations, and no action was taken against the DOE employees. "The Justice Department wanted to indict the workers, the valve-turners; we wanted to indict the people responsible, in the office with their fancy golf clubs and high-dollar whiskey," McKinley says. Outraged, the grand jury wrote a report outlining the indictments they recommended, but the report and all the documents on which it was based were sealed by a judge. Though the grand jury's report was eventually leaked in full, the documents remain sealed today, despite nearly 20 years of effort to make them public.

The museum that took on the task of keeping those buried memories alive, meanwhile, is struggling. Cleanup contractor Kaiser-Hill gave the museum's board $150,000 to get started, but additional money from the Department of Energy, which helped to fund a number of other museums across the DOE complex, was slow to materialize. In late 2007, after six years of effort, the museum received a $492,000 appropriation; the board will need around $5 million, however, to buy land, design exhibits and construct a permanent building. Private efforts have proven equally disappointing -- some opponents of the plant have said that they are not interested in memorializing a place whose existence they fought for so long. The splitting of the atom had many insidious side-effects; one frequently overlooked byproduct was the way that the secrecy of the Cold War split the community and its memories. It scared those on the outside, isolated those on the inside, and created a situation where transparency and accountability were entirely absent. Between the intense secrecy and the confusing, contradictory swirl of stories surrounding Rocky Flats, we may never know "what really happened" there, and what hazards still remain.

In the summer of 2007, for the first time since Rocky Flats ceased production, a plutonium trigger manufactured at Los Alamos received "diamond stamp" approval, signaling that it was ready for use in a warhead. As the nation embarked on another nuclear buildup, it remained an open question how we would remember the previous one: an underfunded wildlife refuge, a modest museum, a cautionary sign, a placard on the highway? "Everyone looks at the museum for different reasons," said Shirley Garcia, who worked at Rocky Flats for 15 years and now serves as president of the Rocky Flats museum board as well as environmental coordinator for nearby Broomfield County. "They want to keep the history because it's important and it's a story that needs to be told. … That's all well and good. But my primary purpose is to retain the institutional knowledge of what's out there so that people don't forget about it, so that people don't start saying, 'Let's develop it, it's beautiful out there, we can build million-dollar homes.' " 

Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. The half-life of memory, by contrast, is a much briefer thing. The contamination at Rocky Flats will long outlive our efforts to control or even remember it. Like the radiation Jerry San Pietro used to chase, like his elusive burial map, like the documents Wes McKinley fought to release, like the waste trenches and the rumors and the memories, Rocky Flats' contested history is now invisible to the naked eye.

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

Note: a sidebar article, "Rocky Flats lives on," accompanies this feature story.


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