The story of Colorado’s Cold War nuclear weapons plant is still unfolding, but a big part of its past — arguably the most tangible part — is locked up in storage.
The Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, during its short time operating from a rented space near Denver, provided a window into the old Rocky Flats Plant, a Department of Energy site that made nuclear weapons parts from the 1950s through the 1980s. Work there stopped following an FBI raid. It's a story of waste drums left out to deteriorate and "infinity rooms" so named for extreme contamination — and of brave Americans whose ingenuity and skill preserved their fellow citizens' way of life during an unprecedented crisis in world history.
Wiped more or less from the face of the planet, in a cleanup that demolished more than 800 structures and uncovered 88 contaminated environmental sites, Rocky Flats endures in the public imagination and in the news. In the past year, a lawsuit was settled with neighbors, and findings by Metropolitan State University of Denver and the state of Colorado put the focus on health. Next year, the site begins welcoming guests in its newest iteration as Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Meanwhile the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, established in 2001 with its collection of thousands of artifacts from the manufacturing plant, continues to provide informational presentations and continually seeks a permanent home. A federal grant once allowed it to open in a rented space, but the money didn't last, and the physical museum closed. Funds never materialized to build a space suitable for exhibits.
Now, in hopes of providing a new spark, students of the University of Colorado Boulder's Program in Environmental Design will lend their acquired knowledge and individual creativity to the museum effort as part of a 6-credit-hour studio class this spring. They'll be asked to conceptualize and sketch their ideas, then present them during a review.
"You can define, in architecture, that this isn't necessarily a static structure. It could be deployed," said Alex Worden, an architect who is teaching in the department for the first time. "This is the type of new thinking that I think the students could do. ... This is not going to be a finished building. This is going to be an exploration in ideas for 'What can a Rocky Flats Cold War Museum be?'"
Worden would be gratified if the projects bring needed attention to the museum's plight, and he's interested in working with the museum via his design office in the future if appropriate. Museum board members, for their part, are "100 percent behind it," said the museum's president. "They are very pleased that Alex is helping them with that."
In light of this development, perspective on the Rocky Flats story — and why it needs telling — from museum president Murph Widdowfield, a former Rocky Flats engineering contractor and Army veteran:
Rocky Flats Cold War Museum president Murph Widdowfield is pictured alongside the museum's small display in Arvada, Colo. While most of the museum's 10,000-plus artifacts are in storage, this space is provided courtesy of the Arvada Historical Society.
Photo Credit: Amanda Miller/Staff
What is the museum's current inventory and status? How did it acquire these relics?
The museum has about 10,000 items in its collection that were acquired by the closure, decontamination and destruction contractor, Kaiser-Hill LLC. Then by the grace of the Department of Energy, the items were given to us for a museum to commemorate the workers and history of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. These items are all in storage at this time due to lack of funding. The storage costs are being borne by a few donors who believe in us and by the graciousness of the board of directors.
Describe Rocky Flats' position in the production chain. Was it relatively more or less dangerous than other sites?
The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant produced the triggers, or "pits," for every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, close to 70,000 of them. The pits were then shipped to other sites for inclusion in the weapons themselves. Rocky Flats did not produce bombs. Due to the security of the site, many other secretly engineered, machined and welded products were also produced by Rocky Flats to be used in many military and scientific operations. Was it more or less dangerous than other plants? Yes and no. No more dangerous than plants manufacturing other nuclear or chemical products, but the key was proper training and proper equipment. The employees at Rocky Flats knew what they were handling and understood the procedures required to do their jobs safely and productively.
How much is publicly known about the weapons ultimately made from Rocky Flats parts?
There is still very little known publicly about the production at Rocky Flats. The secrecy remains mostly intact as most ex-workers still do not broadcast information. But there are many rumors, some close but mostly way out in left field. Although most are no longer held as secret.
The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer on NASA's Terra satellite captured this simulated true-color image of Rocky Flats Plant (bottom right of the photo) during cleanup on Dec. 12, 2003. Lying west of Denver's suburbs and south of Boulder, Colorado, the facility was known during this period as the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site.
Photo Credit: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
What technologies were unique to, or originated at Rocky Flats, or were its defining processes?
The defining process at Rocky Flats was, of course, the nuclear triggers or pits. These are made of plutonium or highly enriched uranium and some other metals. They were melted, cast, welded and machined to extremely tight tolerances. However, more than 1,200 patents were applied for, for processes and equipment such as welding, engineering and special parts and procedures.
What's the biggest lingering concern over the site?
The biggest lingering concern at Rocky Flats is contamination. The surface today is clean enough for us to walk on, work on, or otherwise enjoy. However, there is still residual contamination under the surface, mainly in the 1,200-acre "central core" area, which is still controlled by the Department of Energy and will be for the foreseeable future. The surface and subsurface water is monitored, sampled and treated 24 hours a day. There are still five foundations and other subsurface structures buried under the ground to protect any contamination that may be in or under them. These are fairly deep and not a large concern as long as they are not dug up. The rest of the 6,000-acre site, which was mainly used for a security buffer zone, has been tested and cleared of health-affecting contamination.
What's the greatest misconception surrounding Rocky Flats today?
The greatest misconception of Rocky Flats is that it is still a hazard for those who live around the area. I do not believe that is true. It is a valuable area for its scenery, animal life and open space, something we don't have much of for people to enjoy, and they should.
View of the control room for the X-Y retriever. Using the X-Y retriever, operators retrieved plutonium metal from the plutonium storage vaults and conveyed it to the X-Y shuttle area, where it was cut and weighed. From the shuttle area, the plutonium was conveyed elsewhere for casting or for rolling and forming.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Why is a museum needed, and what do you envision as the way forward?
This museum is needed to tell the story. The story is Colorado's, Jefferson County's and Rocky Flats' place in the Cold War. The history is compelling and must be told completely. The ability to educate all people about our recent history and the science, engineering and technology is not just wanted, it is required.
Today, we still have many of the former workers and others with the knowledge, but not long in the future that will disappear after which, no matter how much you research and try, it will never be 100 percent. We must raise the funding necessary to build this project for the future generations because no matter how you look at it, you will always have the need for science, technology and engineering. The only way to teach them is to understand their source.
How do you foresee the next chapter in the story of Rocky Flats?
I hope the site will be maintained as a place for all to enjoy, a truly wild refuge for the wildlife. I also want people to understand the history and significance of what Rocky Flats did and its place in the protection of the USA. The Cold War was an extremely tense period during our history, and the young people, especially, must learn and understand why. Everyone loves peace, but there is only one way to have it, and that is the ability to defend ourselves from those who would take it away from us.
We wish to thank all those who maintain our security and sovereignty. They are the finest.
An elk herd pictured at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge's historic Lindsay Ranch.
Photo Credit: Ryan Moehring