The Boom Years

Twenty-eight years after a nuclear bomb rocked Colorado, its shock waves still reverberate on the Western Slope.

On the day they bombed Colorado, Rifle mayor Lesley Estes was a guest at the reviewing station, standing under a large circus tent. He knew that important people such as Dr. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, were among the crowd gathered at a remote site in the state's mesa country on September 10, 1969. But he spent most of his time chatting with his friends from town. Like him, they had gathered to witness the biggest thing ever to hit Rifle: the detonation of an underground nuclear device more than twice as powerful as the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima in 1945.

Set off as part of Project Plowshare, a government effort to use nuclear weapons for peacetime purposes, the Rulison bomb was intended to shake loose millions of cubic feet of natural gas for the benefit of two private energy companies. Mayor Estes didn't object to the idea of unleashing the nuclear genie a mile and a half inside the earth. In fact, he won the trucking contract on the job.

"I had a trucking business at the time, and that was a good contract, hauling in all of the rigs and whatnot," Estes remembers. Those rigs were being used by government crews to drill a hole 8,430 feet deep and just fifteen inches wide near the ghost town of Rulison, halfway between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.

Estes's company didn't get to haul the long, thin bomb up from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. "They had fellows from the government that were in charge of the bomb the whole time," he says. "I had a pass, though, to go up there any time to see how things were coming along."

Things were coming along just fine, but Estes didn't pay much attention to that. He just made sure the trucks ran on time.

Years later, one of the energy companies that paid for the blast, Austral Oil Company of Houston, invited Estes down to Texas for a dinner honoring those who had worked on the project, which never produced the hoped-for gas bonanza. "They had made some cuff links out of the rock that was right at the blast site, and they gave me the first pair," he says. "I still have them around here someplace." The mayor never tried them on, though. "I don't have the kind of shirt where you use cuff links," he says. "All my shirts have buttons."

Like Lesley Estes's cuff links, the Rulison blast was an awkward fit for Colorado. It sparked an early environmental battle that Dick Lamm lost, but one that he says helped launch the state's environmental movement, along with his own candidacy for governor. Scientists such as Teller still believe the idea was a good one that was hamstrung by people with an irrational fear of nuclear weapons. Local residents generally had the same reaction that Estes did: They hoped to make a buck off the bomb but remained instinctually wary of a proposal that, if successful, could have led to a string of as many as 1,500 nuclear explosions across Colorado.

Today, memories of the blast have resurfaced as part of a new political battle brewing on the Western Slope. Energy companies have returned to the area around the Rulison site and once again are poking holes in the earth in search of natural gas. Some residents fear the new round of exploration is increasing the odds that radioactivity trapped for years in the subterranean rock may be brought to the surface.

Just as it did with the Rulison project three decades ago, the government says the latest effort is perfectly safe. But many residents--along with a Republican lawmaker who represents them at the state legislature--question those claims. And nearly thirty years after the Rulison bomb went off, its aftershocks are still being felt.

For Edward Teller, the road to the Western Slope began in Germany, where the Budapest-born researcher was studying at the University of Leipzig alongside Werner Heisenberg, then known as the world's leading molecular scientist. When Hitler came to power, other physicists told Teller that as a Jew, he would have no future in Germany. He took their advice and moved to America.

Teller's old teacher, Heisenberg, had developed the first theories of how atoms work. And even as American scientists came closer to designing an atom bomb, Teller knew the Germans could be even closer. The odds were good that a bomb of previously unimagined strength could soon be in Hitler's hands.

Teller, though, resisted joining the war effort until the Nazis invaded his native Hungary. After that, he needed no more convincing: He joined the group of physicists working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His work there earned him a reputation as the "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb," a title he still bears proudly.

After the war, Teller remained an advocate for the use of nuclear bombs, and his steadfast devotion created a rift among his fellow scientists. By the early 1960s, he proposed Project Plowshare, a reference to the biblical injunction to "beat their swords into plowshares."

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