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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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BJ: And as part of the indemnification, it included paying their legal fees?

KI: Yeah, they're basically covered. And it's very difficult to indict. The reason given for not indicting officials at Rockwell or in the Department of Energy was that these managers were working under the direction of the Department of Energy in a climate that, in order to produce enough plutonium pits for the nuclear warheads we needed, these companies had to basically ignore environmental law. You know, when the [1972] Clean Water Act came along there was no way that these companies in this country could produce plutonium pit triggers and nuclear weapons and comply with environmental laws. So it was kind of a catch-22.

BJ: Can you explain what chinook winds are and why they made building a nuclear weapons facility onsite so dangerous?

KI: In the original criteria, there was a mistake in the engineering report. Jim Stone [an engineer hired to help design Rocky Flats] pointed that out. But he was ignored. He turned out to be a very important whistleblower. But there was a mistake in the engineering report. They based the location of the plant on wind patterns out at Stapleton Airport instead of the wind patterns out at the Rocky Flats site. And what happens on that high plateau is the chinook winds come down from the mountains at a very high rate of speed. They pick up temperature and they pick up speed as the come down off the mountains and by the time they blow across that land they're really intense. Anyone who's driving along Highway 93 through a windstorm or a blizzard or something, you know about this. That's why there are so many accidents on that road.

When I worked at Rocky Flats it was not uncommon for people to have their windshields blown out when the winds were intense. The windows of our house -- we were up on a little bit of a rise -- but that wind would come down just like a roaring truck and hit the house and the windows would rattle and shake and sometimes they would break. Very, very intense winds.

So the wind comes down and it picks up all that contamination -- it did in the past and it still does in the present day -- picks it all up and takes it right down southeast of the plant.

BJ: The scenes depicting Rocky Flats workers who directly produced these plutonium triggers are extraordinarily harrowing. It's hard to imagine they went in and did this every day. Can you describe the glove boxes that workers used during the production process?

KI: The glove boxes were stainless steel, linked boxes through which the plutonium moved. The worker would take a plutonium button and it would be melted in the foundry and then shaped and shaved in the glove box by human hands. A worker would stand in front of the glove box -- sometimes on a little stool if they weren't quite tall enough to peek in the window – and they would look through the plastic window, through the Benelux window, and put their arms and hands into lead-lined gloves and then shape and shave each plutonium button into the trigger that it would eventually become. And it would go up on kind on a conveyor, kind of like a conveyor line or conveyor belt, and then go down to the next glove box, where the next step would be accomplished.

There were hundreds of these glove boxes. It was quite literally a factory for plutonium triggers. Rocky Flats was the only facility in the country that produced plutonium triggers and they cost about $4 million each and we produced more than 70,000 of them. And as I mention in the book, each plutonium trigger has enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth. It's very lethal material and highly flammable.

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