© Tim Hawkins / Freshwater Photos
Adapted from Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown Publishers), published June 5, 2012. © 2012 Kristen Iversen.
At the top of the hill behind our house stands the Arvada cemetery. The year 1863 is etched in a stone marker at the entrance. The cemetery works like a magnet. As soon as our mother puts us out into the yard for the afternoon—just like the kids and grandkids on the family farm back in Iowa, who were expected to fend for themselves for the day—my sisters and I scramble over the fence and head for the hill. We trek across the field behind the row of backyards and through the old apple orchard and get up to the creek, where we balance a flat plank across the shallow, sluggish water and tiptoe across.
At the crest of the hill stand row after row of headstones. Some have the names of children or images of their faces etched in the stone, and we stay away from those. We look down the hill to our house and imagine our mother, big and round, lying on her bed and waiting for the next baby, a boy at last, she’s sure of it. A little farther, we can see the Arvada Villa Pizza Parlor and the Arvada Beauty Academy. Between our neighborhood and the long, dark line of mountains stands a single white water tower, all by itself. The Rocky Flats water tower. There is a hidden factory there.
That factory is the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a foundry that smelts plutonium, purifies it and shapes it into plutonium “triggers” for nuclear bombs. A largely blue-collar link in the government’s nuclear bomb network, Rocky Flats is the only plant in the country that produces these triggers—small, spherical explosives that provide an atomic bomb’s chain reaction. From 1952 to 1989, Rocky Flats manufactures more than 70,000 plutonium triggers, at a cost of nearly $4 million apiece. Each one contains enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.
Rocky Flats’s largest output, however, is radioactive and toxic waste. The American nuclear weapons industry has for decades produced waste with little thought to the future or the environment. Virtually all radioactive waste produced with each gram of plutonium remains with us today.
But no one in our community knows what goes on at Rocky Flats. This is a secret operation, not subject to any laws of the state. The plant is operated by Dow Chemical. My mother believes they’re making Scrubbing Bubbles.
The wind blows, as it always does. The chill of evening begins to creep up the hill; the air turns cold when the sun dips.
“Let’s go!” my sister yells, and we jump to our feet and roll and tumble down the hill. We bounce across the plank and race across the field, full speed, before the sun sets and the ghosts come out.
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The name Rocky Flats is taken from the dry, rolling land dotted with sage and pine trees, a name chosen by early homesteaders who raised cattle and hay. Now it will no longer be ranchland. The money is in housing. Jefferson County and the entire Denver area are booming. Just over half a million in 1950, by 1969 the population of the Denver metro area has more than doubled. Jefferson and Boulder counties are two of the fastest-growing counties in the country.
The plant is surrounded by two tiers of barbed-wire fence stretching ten miles around the circumference of the core area. The first tier, three feet high, is to keep cattle out. The second tier, nine feet high, is electrified and patrolled by guards with guns, high-powered binoculars and, eventually, tanks. With the exception of a two-story administration building, the plant’s buildings are built low to the ground, in ravines cut deep into the soil. The factory is almost invisible from the road. By early 1952, things are in full production. The product that comes off the factory line at Rocky Flats is a well-kept secret. By 1969 more than 3,500 people work at the plant. No other nuclear bomb factory has ever been located so close to a large and growing population.