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We Had a Secret Nuclear Weapons Plant Near a Major American City? Yeah, One of the Most Contaminated Sites in America

A new book reveals the truth about a plutonium factory that hardly anyone knew existed.

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Was your portrayal of these people also in some way a response to how the U.S. government and the nuclear industry often portray human beings affected by possible nuclear contamination as kind of faceless, unknowable numbers?

KI: I wanted to put a human face on what I felt was a very inhumane story. Absolutely. And when you look at cancer statistics or the Colorado state standard for contamination of plutonium in the soil, it's very easy to have it all look and feel very anonymous. You know, what does it mean? All of these things had a very direct impact on people's lives and I tried to tell that story from as many viewpoints as possible and still tell a really good story. I wanted to include the workers of various types, working in different parts of the plant. The firefighters, the residents, the activists. I wanted to give the full story, as much as I could, of all the different kinds of people who were involved and how their lives were affected, including workers and local residents who got sick who I knew and worked with and lived with and who were my friends

BJ: How did the Mother's Day fire inadvertently lead to the revelation of prior unknown incidents of major nuclear contamination at and around Rocky Flats?

KI: The astonishing thing about the 1969 fire was that by then, even though there was very little mention of the fire in the newspaper -- as I mention in the book, it was kind of buried in the back of the paper next to Pet of the Week -- but one thing that it did was it forced the Department of Energy to kind of show their hand because scientists found extensive plutonium contamination offsite as far as 30 miles away.

And they went back – Ed Martell [former radiochemist for the National Center for Atmosphere Research and the nonprofit Colorado Committee for Environmental Information in Boulder] and others – went back to Department of Energy and said, "How do you explain this?" And the DOE said, "Well, we admit, yes, there is contamination offsite, but it's not from the Mother's Day fire. It's from the fire in 1957 and from these 5,000 leaking barrels that had been standing out in the open for 11 years."

So that was an astonishing, stunning revelation to the few people who knew about it because in the 1957 fire and the 1969 fire – those fires were so intense that they burned out the filters and the measuring equipment. So for the '57 fire in particular, we will never know how much plutonium and other contaminants, radioactive and toxic contaminants, got out into the environment. We will never know. And that's also true to a certain extent with the 1969 fire.

So we have a number of things that were highly contaminating to the local environment. But the thing about the '69 fire is that it forced the Department of Energy to admit that there had been these other two major events that were even greater than that fire that contaminated the local environment.

BJ: So they played that hand, they revealed those two cards, but the reality is that no one really knows the extent of the contamination from the 1969 fire?

KI: Right, that's correct. I was going to quote John Cobb. John Cobb taught at the University of Colorado Medical Center and he was hired by the EPA to look at plutonium in people's bodies. And he did autopsies on 450 people who'd grown up around Rocky Flats and lived around Rocky Flats and found plutonium in their tissue, lung tissue and liver tissue. And he said in court under oath, "To rid the metro area of detectable amounts of plutonium in the soil would mean taking up all the soil and buildings in Denver." The study was done in 1978. I believe that particular statement was made in court following the 1989 FBI raid.

 
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