Looking Back At The History Of Rocky Flats

Oct 3, 2019

New soil samples from Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge show safe levels of plutonium at the former nuclear weapons manufacturing site. That's after elevated readings were found this summer. 

State health officials asked for more samples after a soil grab from one area showed five times the safe level of plutonium, which is dangerous to humans when inhaled. But the 25 samples recently collected and analyzed show levels within federal standards. 

To learn more about the history of Rocky Flats before it was a wildlife refuge, we called up David Havlick. He is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Erin O'Toole: Start by telling us a bit about the history of Rocky Flats, and what that site used to be.

David Havlick: Rocky Flats, which is now a wildlife refuge, was first set aside by the Department of Energy as a primary production facility for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Particularly, they made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs over a span of several decades from about 1952 to 1989. They made about 70,000 plutonium triggers which was pretty much all the plutonium triggers that were part of our nuclear arsenal.

A coyote at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit Peter Eades / USFWS

And the site is now a wildlife refuge. You study former militarized sites and their ecological restoration. Is this a good use of that space?

Well, I think it's complicated. It's good in terms of setting the land aside for conservation, so at least for the area where production occurred, and for a buffer area around there, it helps ensure there won't be residential developments or commercial occupancy.

But I think there are some problems with it in terms of the uncertainty of just how safe the site is, and also the lingering legacy of the site. Over time, what we come to understand and know about the place can, I think, actually be altered by virtue of it being a wildlife refuge. In other words, if we think of it just being a place for wildlife, we may lose sight of the fact that it was also a place that, at one point, had the most dangerous building in America housed on that site.

What are some of the challenges of restoring these sites?

I think there's a mix of challenges. Some of them are technical challenges, like, in a place like Rocky Flats how do you manage or handle the radioactivity of the site, and the infrastructure that produced that radioactivity? Are there technical ways to actually render that safe, or to put it somewhere else where it's not going to contaminate people or soils or water over time? And I think a lot of those technical challenges remain somewhat uncertain.

And then there are the new managerial challenges. As wildlife managers move in, what are their obligations? Their primary mission is really for conservation and habitat. But at sites like this, should they also have a historical mission, to continue to let people know that this is what happened here — and these may be some concerns that you want to be aware of as you enter this space. Or whether it should even be open to the public at all is certainly, for Rocky Flats,  an important question.

What stands out to you about Rocky Flats in comparison to some of the other sites you study?

I think there are two things. One is the uncertainty of the site.  To what degree are we really confident that it's safe? And the other is just the sort of specter of radioactivity, having plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years. Should that raise the level of caution we carry into this site? And to me, the answer is yes, it should. If it's unexploded ordnance or even chemical contamination of soils – those tend to be less mobile, more visible, easier to trace and to document. Whereas particles of plutonium are pretty hard to monitor and figure out where they are and what they're doing long-term.

Elk at Rocky Flats.
Credit Ryan Moehring / USFWS

How should we think about the history of Rocky Flats and how important is it for people to know what it used to be versus what it is now?

To me, it's really important. I grew up in Boulder with the protests going on, and so every time I go by Rocky Flats, I still think of a teepee being set up on the railroad tracks, or concerts protesting nuclear proliferation. The site today is very much bound into that memory and that recognition of what happened in that place.

I think for people who are new to the area who only encounter it as a wildlife refuge, then it's easy to kind of normalize that, and feel like "this is just a place that's just dedicated to elk," or Preble's jumping mice, or the wildlife that occupy that space. And we lose a lot of the important social meaning of the site, and also that caution about — maybe there are some activities that we should not do around this site that differ depending on whether we think of it as a former weapons plant or as just a wildlife refuge. So, I think that historical perspective is critically important.

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Oct. 3. Listen to the full episode here.