Thursday, October 13, 2005

End of an Era

When I first moved to Boulder in 1982, there were perpetual demonstrations at CU against the nuclear weapons plant called Rocky Flats that was located on a mesa about ten miles south of town. I remember thinking that the occasional demonstrations demanding that the government close the plant were pretty futile, given that we were in the middle of the Reagan administration’s nuclear arms build-up against the Soviet Union. But guess what.

The storied Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, an icon of the Cold War, a famed target of peace activists and an economic powerhouse for the metro area, has vanished from its 50-year perch on the high prairie northwest of Denver.

Crews with Kaiser-Hill Co., the government contractor that spent a decade scouring the 6,200-acre site of everything from buildings to plutonium-laced dirt, were conducting final inspections Wednesday in preparation for formal completion of the cleanup, expected any day.


The demolition, removal and decontamination work marks the end of a federal complex once home to 800 buildings, named streets, power lines and bomb-making factories where workers churned out critical components for tens of thousands of the weapons that fueled America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Now, almost nothing remains. Prairie or newly seeded soil cover the entire property, with a few one-lane dirt roads left for future access by environmental regulators and U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers, who will eventually manage much of the land as a refuge.

“We’ve traded weapons for wildlife . . . bombs for birds,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, who paid his respects to the emptied site Wednesday with a visit.


The legacy of Rocky Flats, critics say, is the creation of plutonium triggers still sitting in nuclear weapons poised for use, “weapons of mass destruction, enough to more than wipe out all human life on the planet,” said LeRoy Moore, a peace activist who has followed events at the site since 1978.

Still, Rocky Flats today holds a distinction that no other facility like it can claim: It is the first nuclear weapons plant in the world that has been cleaned up and demolished.

In the eight years I lived in Boulder, I only visited the site once. That was when I was working for a program in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and I did a dog-and-pony show for a distance-learning program. Rocky Flats looked like any other industrial park, with low, non-descript buildings and vast acres of parking lots, but there were security patrols everywhere and no visitor went anywhere without an escort. The harsh yellow radiation warning signs were everywhere, and I came away from that day wondering if I would set off a Geiger counter.

Now it’s been returned to its natural state…or as close as it can be to that. Let’s hope that this is just the first of many such events.

Update: Kaiser-Hill Co. has moved on to cleaing up another hazardous-waste site: Bob’s desk.