Downwind from the “Most Dangerous Building in America”: Reflections, Representations, and Lessons from Rocky Flats, Denver’s Nuclear Weapons Plant

AHA Session 285
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 3A (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Patricia Nelson Limerick, Center of the American West, University of Colorado, and Colorado State Historian
Len Ackland, Center for Environmental Journalism, University of Colorado
Ronald Cohen, Colorado School of Mines
Jeff Gipe, visual artist and creator of Cold War Horse
LeRoy Moore, Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center
Rachel Osgood, Colorado School of Mines
David Skaggs, former congressman, Colorado
Philip Sneed, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities

Session Abstract

Visitors looking west from downtown Denver toward the mountains can see an open plain running along the foothills between the cities of Golden and Boulder. Now the picturesque Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the site once housed a sprawling nuclear weapons plant that included what ABC’s Nightline dubbed “the most dangerous building in America.” This roundtable explores the contested memory of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant from the perspective of living witnesses, artists, activists, scientists, and scholars.

Rocky Flats left a tortured legacy. From 1952 to 1992, it produced the plutonium cores for 70,000 nuclear weapons, leaving an environmental catastrophe in its wake. During its history, hundreds of pounds of plutonium were labeled “missing and unaccounted for,” barrels of contaminated waste leaked into rivers and lakes supplying water to neighboring towns, and two fires sprayed radioactive ash across the Denver Metropolitan area and nearly triggered a nuclear meltdown. Initially accepted as vital to the nation’s Cold War defenses and the region’s economy, Rocky Flats became increasingly controversial. By the early 1970s, it became a major focal point of the environmental, anti-nuclear, and peace movements. As activists, scientists, workers, community members, corporate interests, and federal and local government agencies vied to define the impact, purpose, and future of the plant, the site became a hotly contested space lying at the intersection of science, policy, security, secrecy, and community.

Participants in the roundtable include Len Ackland, the former editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, and the author of Making A Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West; Ronald Cohen, an environmental scientist at Colorado School of Mines who received a Certificate of Special Recognition from the U.S. Congress for his contribution to the environmental remediation of Rocky Flats; Jeff Gipe, a visual artist whose father worked at the plant for twenty years, and who produced a series of artistic installations exploring the meaning of Rocky Flats, including Cold War Horse, a memorial to recognize the site and its workers; LeRoy Moore, an activist who founded the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, which has worked for decades to draw attention to both past and continuing hazards posed by Rocky Flats, and who served on various oversight bodies related to Rocky Flats; Rachel Osgood, a historian at Colorado School of Mines who researches and teaches about the social and ethical meaning of Rocky Flats to young science and engineering students; and Philip Sneed, who led efforts to commemorate the history of the historic 1989 joint FBI-EPA raid of the plant through his role as executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, located in the city of Arvada, which experienced many of the most severe environmental impacts of Rocky Flats. Additional participants may be announced at the conference. The roundtable will be moderated by Patricia Limerick, the Colorado State Historian and the director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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