Half-Life of Memory: Unforgetting the ‘American Chernobyl’

Rocky Flats Plant

Between 1952 and 1989, Rocky Flats was the U.S. government’s main factory for building thermonuclear weapons. Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Ponder this scenario: A government builds a vital nuclear facility a short drive away from a major population center. Via an admixture of ignorance, negligence and—possibly above all—an imperative to win now and worry about the costs later, this nuclear facility releases a significant amount of potentially deadly radioactivity into the environment. Land and water are poisoned. Livestock and people are mutated. Some develop tumors and cancers. Some die.

Throughout it all—and despite clear signs that something is very wrong—the public is kept ignorant, deliberately. In the interest of national security, the government never informs the surrounding population—not of the facility’s construction, nor its existence, nor the mortal threat drifting downwind into apartment blocks and farms—until many years later, when the secret is too obvious to conceal.

SEE ALSO: Chernobyl Tourism Spikes After HBO Miniseries

Even when making its admissions, in order to downplay the abuses and cover up what it can, the government chooses to continue to lie, telling the citizenry that if there is something afoot at the top-secret compound—and there isn’t—there is nothing to worry about. All is well. Everyone is safe. This official line is adhered to even as workers at the nuclear facility begin to fall ill and die.

Stocked with villains and patsies—and plenty of collaborators who were just “following orders”—this story does have at least one hero, a scientist in the government’s employ. He has a conscience and moral fiber, so he raises the alarm—only to find himself sidelined and silenced, his warning ignored and the threat undiminished. Removed from his official position of power as punishment, his contribution to the truth and to accountability is appreciated only after his death.

All this should sound familiar to most Americans in 2019. Prestige TV junkies will find similarities to the plot of Chernobyl, the nuclear-disaster miniseries and runaway critical success for HBO since its debut this spring.

You would be right, but now comes the trick in this trick extended lede: All of this happened in the United States, just outside of Denver, Colorado, at the Rocky Flats Plant. Between 1952 and 1989, Rocky Flats was the U.S. government’s main factory for building thermonuclear weapons. As current Colorado Gov. Jared Polis testified before Congress, in 1969, Rocky Flats “nearly became America’s own Chernobyl,” with Denver rendered a radioactive forbidden zone—”[t]he day they almost lost Denver,” as journalist Len Ackland wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Production halted in 1989, not because the Cold War was ending, but because the FBI raided the Department of Energy-managed plant and the for-profit operator contracted to run it, Rockwell International, which later pleaded guilty to environmental crimes. Local homeowners received a $375 million settlement for the radioactivity on their land—not because of the fires, but because of normal day-to-day plant activities, such as storing thousands of barrels of radioactive waste on a windy plain, in the open air.

Between the mid-1990s and 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy sought to undo at least some of this legacy. Buildings were demolished. Workers trucked away tons of radioactivity. What could not be removed was simply buried deep underground, or left in situ, where it will remain a risk as long as plutonium remains radioactive—which is roughly 24,000 years.

View of a site return weapons component at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1962.

This nuclear weapon was shipped to the Rocky Flats Plant from the nuclear weapon stockpile for retirement in 1962. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER CO-83-O

“I think there are a lot of parallels” between Chernobyl and Rocky Flats, said Jeff Gipe, a New York City-based artist who grew up in Rocky Flats’ literal shadow and whose father worked at the plant for decades.

“Everyone [who watched the show Chernobyl] is like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this,'” he said. “And I’m, ‘Wow, if you only knew what happened in America.'”

Though he relocated to New York more than a decade ago and lives and works in Brooklyn, much of Gipe’s work now revolves around Rocky Flats. Gipe sculpted the “Cold War Horse,” a juxtaposition of a Colorado icon—a prancing stallion—with a Cold War icon, a hazmat suit.

The horse, which current Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently praised as a “masterpiece,” is also essentially the only monument to the Rocky Flats story that exists in the public space—and only exists at all after it was rebuilt following a mysterious and unsolved act of vandalism.

Gipe’s current project is also Rocky Flats-related, but is significantly more ambitious: a reprogramming of the Colorado and American consciousnesses.

The mission of his almost-finished full-length documentary film, Half-Life of Memory: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear Trigger, one of three upcoming Rocky Flats-related documentaries, is meant to exhume the Rocky Flats story from the dark and forgotten recesses of the country’s collective memory banks—where it may have been deliberately relegated.

Gipe has lived the Rocky Flats story as much as anyone. It was his upbringing and now dominates his art. He spent the past few years interviewing 50 people involved with the site—workers, government officials, real-estate developers and activists.

A common thread he discovered was how easy it has become to live, work or buy a home next to Rocky Flats and be blissfully ignorant—willingly or not—of both the story’s broad outlines, including how close the United States came to nuking itself, as well as the ongoing risk the site presents.

Chernobyl’s release presents Gipe with an opportunity to draw an easy parallel—Chernobyl is a household word, a metonym for nuclear folly—but the prevailing reaction to the miniseries among many critics, a smug condemnation of the Soviet system rather than drawing any lessons to apply, also reveals the scope of the problem Gipe is attempting to correct.

“I think everyone distances themselves, ‘Wow, this couldn’t happen here. We’re better than that.’ And I honestly think that Americans would not be any better” if a Chernobyl-like event occurred at Rocky Flats or elsewhere, he said. “Anything that revolves around nuclear power or nuclear weapons, there is a continuum of lies.”

“It is very easy to see how the same thing could have happened here.”

It is true that an explosion—and a subsequent massive, uncontrolled release of radioactivity like at Chernobyl—did not happen. The fact that it almost did, and Americans weren’t fully informed of the fact that their government nearly killed them would be outrageous enough—if not for the fact that the 1969 fire followed another fire, in 1957, and was thus the second time Denver was nearly irradiated by the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.

A room damaged in the fire that occurred at the Rocky Flats Plant on May 11, 1969.

A room damaged in the fire that occurred at the Rocky Flats Plant on May 11, 1969. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER CO-83-O

The fires were very bad and were among the two times that the United States came close to blowing itself up, but the plant’s everyday operating habits throughout the rest of its existence—when it discharged plutonium through smokestacks, sprayed contaminated water on a nearby field and stored barrels of waste outside, in the open, on a windy plain upwind from homes—were also bad. So much plutonium escaped that a nearby lake, used for a neighboring town’s drinking water, had to be abandoned as consumable water supply.

Now, decades later, the “we almost lost Denver/we almost nuked ourselves” is part of the problem and helps mask the fact that a considerable amount of plutonium did escape from Rocky Flats. Potentially deadly radioactive material entered the surrounding environment, carried by dust and water into farms, homes and schools. Some of that potentially deadly radioactivity, in the form of small specks of plutonium that can be inhaled or ingested, remains today in the surrounding environment.

Here is where the story requires the necessary disclaimers: According to the federal and state governments, all remains well. State and federal environmental regulators insist that hiking at Rocky Flats is safe and that buying a home nearby is safe. Repeated visits to the site subjects the visitor to no more radiation than a chest x-ray. How likely it is to inhale a speck of plutonium and introduce an alpha radiation-emitting particle to your internal organs is not addressed—in part because, as a group of experts, including retired and active professors of biology and chemistry at the University of Colorado and elsewhere say, deducing that risk would require a study that would reveal facts many prefer remain unknown.

The use of plutonium to produce bombs at Rocky Flats ended in 1989 following an FBI raid. The plant’s for-profit operator, Rockwell International, pleaded guilty years later to environmental crimes and paid the aforementioned fine. However, nobody served any jail time, and reams of documents that detailed exactly what went on at the plant, reviewed by a grand jury, remain sealed.

Though tons and tons of hazardous material was removed, most of the contamination, including what was once declared the “most dangerous building in America,” was not removed—merely buried underground, not unlike the technique employed at Chernobyl.

The areas where the buildings burned and plutonium was shaped into the triggers required to set off thermonuclear bombs is a forbidden zone, but the plant’s former containment zone, which was never “cleaned” of plutonium or other radionuclides, is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, open for hikers, trail-runners and mountain-bikers—as well as area schoolchildren (though several school superintendents and school board officials have publicly announced that their students will not be visiting the area).

The whistle-blowing scientist mentioned earlier was Carl Johnson, the former public health director for Jefferson County, where Rocky Flats is located. An accomplished researcher, as well as physician, Johnson, in the mid-1970s, claimed to have found plutonium contamination 44 times above normal in the areas surrounding Rocky Flats—areas that now contain housing. In the 1980s, he published in prestigious medical journals his findings that suggested the deaths from fallout of nuclear tests in Nevada, where the U.S. tested hydrogen bombs in the desert, were much higher than the government admitted.

A detailed view of a glove box damaged in the 1969 fire at the Rocky Flats Plant.

A detailed view of a glove box damaged in the 1969 fire at the Rocky Flats Plant. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER CO-83-O

Johnson was removed from his position by elected officials in Jefferson County in the mid-1980s, some of whom had connections to real estate development, but continued to agitate and advocate about Rocky Flats until the end. When Johnson died in 1988, at the age of 59—around the same time Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, the “hero” of Chernobyl, took his own life—his obituary was printed in The New York Times.

In an example of how history may both rhyme and repeat itself, Johnson’s successor as public health director in Jefferson County—Mark Johnson, no relation—is also on record as being opposed to both development and touring the wildlife refuge until significant testing is completed. For his caution, Mark Johnson was excoriated last year as a fear-mongering fool, in both a Denver Post editorial as well as in emails between other government officials bent on proving Rocky Flats’ safety.

A museum that would address, or at least acknowledge, this history, promised by the Department of Energy, which manages the old factory, has yet to materialize. Land just to the south of where the United States built 70,000 plutonium triggers for its nuclear weapons arsenal is now being developed into housing.

Because Rocky Flats was not a catastrophe on the level of Chernobyl—and just a mere near miss, with fewer casualties—Rocky Flats is easier to forget. Even worse, Rocky Flats is easier to decline to acknowledge in the first place. Attempts to hang a sign outside the wildlife refuge’s main gate—under the heading, “What happened here?”—were defeated in the Colorado Legislature.

An aerial view looking south at the plutonium buildings at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1988.

An aerial view looking south at the plutonium buildings at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1988. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER CO-38-O

As The Colorado Independent reported in 2014, prospective home buyers learn all of this only if they know to ask, and activists who tried to let them know were rewarded with defamation lawsuits from the developers. Though the location of the old factory is an EPA Superfund site, off-limits to the public, there is very little in the public space to let any passers-by—or hikers or mountain bikers—know what went on at the wildlife refuge.

It is thus possible to hike at Rocky Flats, drive past it or buy a home at Candelas, the development under construction immediately to the south, and never hear the above story. It is also possible to grow up in the literal shadow of Rocky Flats and also never hear this story, despite having been an active participant, willing or otherwise.

“I went to the school that was closest to Rocky Flats at the time, and Rocky Flats was never taught or spoken about in school,” Gipe said. “It’s a huge part of American history, and there’s nothing about it in the classrooms.”

“My fear is that it’s been about a decade now since the site was declared clean, and since that time, there’s been huge reversal—the site has completely transitioned from what it was. And because of that, memory has really faded,” he added. “People are living in that area now and are not aware of what happened.”

“As as society, we have a short attention span. Everything is about now—what’s the latest thing? The site has been buried. It’s a physical and mental cover-up, in that the most contaminated buildings in America are still buried out there.”

This supercompactor was used to reduce the volume of plutonium-contaminated materials at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1991.

This supercompactor was used to reduce the volume of plutonium-contaminated materials at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1991. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER CO-38-O

Gipe’s film may tell all or most of this story on some level. He isn’t quite sure—he’s still in post-production, attempting to edit the epic tale down to feature-length size. What he does know is that his film is a rebuttal to an official line that has been repeated like a mantra for decades—and thus may be akin to shouting into the wind. But what else can he do?

“Unfortunately, the U.S. government lied to the citizens of Colorado for decades throughout the entire operation of the site,” he said, adding that Rocky Flats itself may be about to repeat itself. As part of an modernization program begun under the Obama administration, the U.S. is currently searching for a “Rocky Flats II,” another site suitable for the production of more plutonium triggers.

“We think of the Cold War as a war without any casualties, and that’s clearly not true,” Gipe said. “We have to expose what happened so we can go forward and question some of the policies. We forget so easily what happened. For people moving into that area, the attitude is, ‘They’ve built houses here. It must be safe.'”

“The reassurances we’ve gotten from our government time and again allowed people to blindly give their faith and say, ‘OK, yeah, I don’t see any issue, maybe there’s no issue. They wouldn’t do that. Our government wouldn’t do that,'” he added. “But if you look back at Rocky Flats’ history, that’s one of the most important lessons.” That is, the American government did do that—and very nearly had its own Chernobyl on its hands, at least twice.

The Rocky Flats Plant, circa 1989.

The Rocky Flats Plant, circa 1989. Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Half-Life of Memory: Unforgetting the ‘American Chernobyl’