A September 11th Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard About

In 1957, America narrowly averted a nuclear meltdown at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado. A new book explores how close we all came to disaster.

ANDREW COHEN | theatlantic.com

An interior view of the plutonium processing facility at Rocky Flats. (Library of Congress)
An interior view of the plutonium processing facility at Rocky Flats. (Library of Congress
On September 11, 1957 a national catastrophe was unfolding, one you likely have never heard about before. At the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver, inside the plutonium processing building, a fire had started in an area designed to be fireproof. Soon it was roaring over, through, and around the carefully constricted plutonium as one Cold-War-era safety feature after another failed. The roof of the building, the building itself, were threatened. And plumes of radioactive smoke went straight up into Colorado’s late summer night air. High into the air, if you believe the witnesses.For 13 hours on the night of the 11th, into the morning the next day, the fire raged inside that building, until firefighters put it out (with water — exposing themselves, and perhaps the entire front range of Colorado, to an even greater risk of radiation). When it was over, Energy Department officials, and the Dow Chemical officials who then ran the facility, did not share the extent of the catastrophe, or the radiation danger, with local officials or the media. For years, no one really knew how bad it had been, what it meant for those exposed to the radiation, or how such a dangerous event could be prevented in the future.

For some, the story of Rocky Flats, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the annals of America’s interaction with the atom, is ancient history. For others, it’s a current event. For Kristen Iversen, it’s a burden she lives with, physically and psychologically, every day of her life. Iversen is the author of a new book on the subject — Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, a striking tale of innocence in a time and a place of great danger. It’s the story of an American family buying into the myth of nuclear safety, a story of an abuse of trust for which our government still hasn’t fully atoned.We saw last March in Japan, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, the ever-present danger of exposing the instruments of nuclear power and weaponry to the natural world. Just last week, the Defense Department launched the Operation Tomodachi Registry website, designed, in its words, to provide “location-based radiation dose estimate reports for adults and children comprising the DoD-affiliated population on or near mainland Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011.” Here’s what the Pentagon announcement also said:

After extensive environmental monitoring and analysis, it has been determined that none of the nearly 70,000 members of the DoD-affiliated population (service members, DoD civilian employees and contractors, and family members of service members and civilian employees) who were on or near the mainland of Japan between March 12 and May 11, 2011, are known to have been exposed to radiation at levels associated with adverse medical conditions.

Some will choose to believe this. Others won’t. But no one should evaluate such claims in the absence of the context and perspective offered by the events of September 11, 1957. With that in mind, I conducted the following online interview with Iversen:

COHEN: Let’s start with September 11, 1957 and the fire in Building 71. In your book, you write:

The men knew not to use water on a plutonium fire. The risk of the blue flash of a criticality, or nuclear chain reaction, was too great. There would likely be no explosion –simply the blue flash signaling the surge of neutron radiation fatal to everyone in the immediate vicinity. But they were desperate. They began using water. For a moment it seemed to work. Then suddenly the air pressure dropped. There was silence, and then a deafening blast… The force twisted the plenum’s steel frame, destroying most of the filters, and blew the lead cap off the 152-foot smokestack. Flames shot more than two hundred feet above the rim.”

As you look back now on that day, and upon the research you did about it, what strikes you the most about how close we all came to being contaminated?

IVERSEN: The Denver area was, in fact, contaminated. This was a devastating fire. It completely destroyed 620 filters as well as most of the measuring equipment that would reveal how much plutonium was actually released. Those filters had not been changed in four years, and they contained a great deal of plutonium and other particulate. After the fire, plutonium was detected as far away as 30 miles from the plant. That extends well into the Denver area. A school 12 miles from Rocky Flats had heavy plutonium contamination in the soil. And the plume from the 1957 fire traveled, of course, far beyond the Denver metro area. It didn’t stop at the border.

Department of Energy officials deny this, but it’s likely that a criticality — a nuclear chain reaction — occurred during the 1957 fire…. Elements such as strontium-90 and cesium-135 never occur except in the case of a nuclear chain reaction. Based on soil and water testing completed decades later that detected the presence of these elements, some experts — despite the government’s insistence that there has never been a criticality at Rocky Flats — believe that a criticality accident producing various fission products may have occurred on September 11, 1957.

But the worst thing about the fire was that no one — except for officials with the Department of Energy and Rocky Flats (then operated by Dow Chemical) — knew about it. There was no public evacuation, no warning, nothing in the press. Local citizens had no idea. This fire was deliberately hidden from public view. People were exposed to plutonium and other contaminants without their knowledge, although officials at the plant were aware of what was going on.

COHEN: How long did it take for the government, and the private entities involved, to admit to what happened on September 11, 1957? When did it dawn on people, in the area and elsewhere, that this great event had occurred?

IVERSEN: Thirteen years passed before the public began to learn that this fire occurred and had contaminated the Denver metro area — and it took another devastating fire to force the government and the private companies that operated Rocky Flats to reveal the truth.

Following the Mother’s Day fire in 1969, an independent group of scientists conducted off-site testing and found plutonium contamination in areas near Rocky Flats to be 400 to 1,500 times higher than normal (i.e., average background concentrations from global fallout). A biochemist at the University of Colorado noted, “That is the highest ever measured near an urban area, including the city of Nagasaki.” The Atomic Energy Commission then conducted its own off-site study, and that study confirmed plutonium contamination as far as thirty miles from the plant.

At that point, officials were forced to admit to off-site plutonium contamination as well as the fact that they had been aware of it for years, although local residents had not been informed or warned. The biggest surprise, however, was the admission that the contamination did not come from the 1969 fire, as had been assumed, but primarily from the devastating 1957 fire. Another source of long-term contamination was the 903 Pad, where more than 5,000 barrels stood out in the open for 11 years and leaked radioactive material into the soil and groundwater.

Even today, many people in Colorado don’t know about these fires, particularly the 1957 fire, and its long-term danger.

COHEN: Has there ever been a calculation of the deaths and injuries caused by Rocky Flats, an accounting, official or otherwise, of the human toll upon the residents in the region?

IVERSEN: It’s very difficult to confirm a specific number, partly because it’s hard to pinpoint the exact source or cause of cancer. Following the 1957 fire, there was a big jump in childhood leukemia. A study in 1978 found higher levels of lung cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers, as well as higher birth defects, in people living near Rocky Flats. Dr. John Cobb at the University of Colorado reported that lung and liver tissue taken during autopsies from the bodies of 450 people who lived near Rocky Flats contained plutonium. In 1996, epidemiologist Richard Clapp of Boston University found higher levels of lung and bone cancer, among others, and “a continuing excess of cancer and ongoing health effects” in areas around Rocky Flats.

But some government studies show that cancer rates are no higher than in other areas of Colorado and officials insist that it’s impossible to prove a link between cancer and other health effects from plutonium from Rocky Flats… Of course, it’s not just local residents who have been affected by Rocky Flats. Hundreds of workers became ill or died as a result of their work at the plant, and they or their survivors have applied for government compensation. Most of them are still waiting for compensation, and the process is difficult because records were poorly kept over the years and exposure dates are difficult to prove.

In recent months, independent studies have confirmed ongoing plutonium contamination in off-site soil, and groundwater is still a major concern. I think it’s important to note that there has never been any kind of public health monitoring of people who live near Rocky Flats.

COHEN: Nearly 12 years later, there was another catastrophic fire at Rocky Flats. How did the September 11, 1957 fire compare with the Mother’s Day fire of 1969, on which you spend a great deal of time?

IVERSEN: Plutonium is highly pyrophoric, meaning that, under the right conditions, it can ignite spontaneously. Over the course of almost 40 years, there were more than 200 fires at Rocky Flats. The 1957 and 1969 fires were, as far as we know, the most dangerous.

The 1957 fire began in a “glove box.” Following this fire, in 1958, an incinerator for burning plutonium-contaminated waste was installed in the plutonium production building. Concerns about this incinerator and its continuous release of radioactive material into the atmosphere eventually led to the 1989 FBI raid on the plant.

The 1969 Mother’s Day fire also started in a glove box, and a similar radioactive cloud traveled over the Denver area. Just as before, Rocky Flats released little information to the public and denied any danger. Although this fire was the costliest industrial accident in the U.S. at that time, its greatest danger was that it brought Denver within minutes of a Chernobyl-like disaster. Three lucky breaks — all largely the result of human error — prevented this.

Workers had accidentally left behind a metal plate in the glove box line that forced the fire to turn from Building 777 — a single-story building with a more vulnerable roof — to Building 776, which had a second story. This gave workers a little more time to try to cool the roof and prevent it from rupturing. The second lucky break occurred when a firefighter was unable to push a burning pile of plutonium into a corner. An AEC investigator later testified that if this heavy sludge of plutonium oxide ash had been moved, a criticality would have been the inevitable result.

But the most important break was that a flustered fireman accidentally backed a fire truck into a power pole and cut off the power, which halted the fans that had been pulling the fire into the filter bank and feeding the fire, causing the roof to melt. Denver was saved in the nick of time — but few people knew it.

COHEN: Who are the political heroes of your book? And who are the villains? Here I’m looking for you to name names on people who made a difference, positively or negatively.

IVERSEN: The list of heroes is long. Governor Roy Romer took a strong stance against storing radioactive waste at Rocky Flats. “If you can’t store it, don’t make it,” he said, and those words are even more true today at sites across the country. FBI Agent Jon Lipsky (now retired) led the 1989 raid on Rocky Flats. Wes McKinley, foreman of the grand jury investigation following the raid, is today a Colorado State Representative and still working to make sure citizens are aware of the dangers of the Rocky Flats site. Daniel Ellsberg’s work began years ago with early protests at the plant, and he continues to focus on Rocky Flats issues. Dr. LeRoy Moore has steadily worked for decades to educate local citizens.

Attorney Peter Nordberg dedicated 16 years of his life to the Rocky Flats class-action lawsuit Cook v. Rockwell, and was present in the courtroom in 2006 when jurors awarded nearly 13,000 local residents a judgment of $554.2 million. Not long afterward, he died unexpectedly from a heart problem, and he didn’t live to see that decision overturned on appeal. (Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.) There are citizen heroes like Tamara Smith Meza, who grew up directly downwind from Rocky Flats and survived numerous surgeries for brain tumors, all — her doctors believe — directly connected to Rocky Flats.

The list of villains is complex. There is the Department of Energy manager who wrote in a 1987 memo to the EPA that the DOE would “go to the mat” to oppose enforcement of environmental regulation at Rocky Flats. He was not alone in that opinion. Several judges over the years have consistently protected the rights of Dow Chemical, Rockwell, and the DOE over the rights of citizens, and have worked to make sure that the Rocky Flats grand jury report remains sealed. There is the prosecution team that refused to make indictments of high-level Rocky Flats and DOE officials recommended by the Rocky Flats grand jury. Local homebuilders have been complicit in keeping new homeowners largely ignorant of plutonium levels in the soil. Rocky Flats is, for many, still the biggest secret in town.

COHEN: What should we pay attention to in the wake of the Fukushima disaster?IVERSEN: The 2011 accident at Fukushima reminded the world in a terrible way that we cannot ignore the threat of radioactive contamination, whether it comes from nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons sites, and that we cannot completely trust governments and private corporations to be entirely truthful or transparent about how and when our lives may be at risk. Radiation from Fukushima was found in at least 11 states across the U.S., and it was even detected at the Rocky Flats site. Radiation contamination is not just a problem in Colorado or Japan. We all, in essence, share the same backyard.

There are several lessons here. Citizens cannot afford to be complacent; they must be educated and aware of nuclear decisions that may affect their health and their properties. Local citizens must be part of the decision-making process regarding existing and potential new nuclear facilities. And we must continue to press for ways to hold government and corporations accountable for protecting public health and the environment. The Price-Anderson Act largely indemnifies corporations from liability related to nuclear accidents or “incidents,” yet the courts and the judicial system have not adequately addressed the concerns of nuclear workers or people living near nuclear sites. Who is to bear responsibility if and when something goes wrong? The accident at Fukushima demonstrated once again the “myth of absolute safety.”

The U.S. faces crucial decisions about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in the months and years ahead. A new plutonium pit production facility is tentatively slated for Los Alamos, capable of producing as many as 450 new pits per year. The U.S. currently has 104 commercial reactors licensed to operate at 65 nuclear power plants, many of them facing serious safety issues. Do we need more nuclear weapons? Must we rely on nuclear power? And what is the often unseen or unanticipated cost to local residents and the environment?

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