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The Boom Years

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

Now ninety and living near San Francisco, Teller says he still believes the Plowshare projects he proposed were a good idea. They included plans to use above-ground explosions in Alaska to make a new harbor for oil supertankers and blowing up a large portion of Nicaragua to carve out a new canal.

Rulison was far less flashy than that but, says Teller, held great economic promise. By exploding a nuclear bomb underground, he and others hoped that natural gas trapped in small pockets in the bedrock would be set free and would rise gracefully to the surface, where it could be piped off at a great profit.

Teller watched the explosion at Rulison, but he has seen dozens of such blasts and says that that day in 1969 doesn't stick out. "My memory of the last couple of decades is not that good compared to my memory of the early part of my life," he says.

But Teller remembers that Rulison was important. If it had worked, it would have been the first of a series of projected nuclear explosions in Colorado to "stimulate" gas production. And he's still chagrined that that never happened. "It is a great pity," Teller says, "that these peaceful uses of nuclear power have never been able to become fully mature."

When government officials decided to try the Rulison experiment, they picked a "surface ground zero" site on a mesa south of the Colorado River, not far from Battlement Creek. Although there are millions of acres of federal land in the area, Atomic Energy Commission officials picked a spot that was part of 292 acres owned by Claude Hayward, a 73-year-old potato farmer trying to scratch out a living on ground that scarcely supports the native sage. "This land has damn little anything except for clean, clear water," says Claude's son Lee, now 79.

Still, when emissaries from the AEC came to the elder Hayward and told him they wanted access to his land and would pay him $100 a month for the rest of his life, he initially said no. "I was afraid it would foul up the water, the one good thing we got, so I told him not to sign it," remembers Lee. "But my father was a gullible man."

Claude's grandson, Craig Hayward, was eighteen at the time. Now an accountant living in Boulder, he still has the contract his grandfather signed. People living around Rulison at the time "knew the square root of zip about radioactivity," Craig says. But "these fellas from the AEC came back around with a whiskey bottle and got him good and juiced up and said they would pay him $200 a month for the rest of his life. Well, even though my father had told him not to sign it, he did."

John Green, Kate Donithorne and Chester McQueary knew a little bit about radioactivity--enough, at least, to make them suspicious of plans to ignite a nuclear bomb in their backyard. So they became protesters, though not exactly the "long-haired hippie radicals" described at the time by the local papers.

The 32-year-old Donithorne was a conservatively coiffed mother of two small children. Green was 30, with three kids and a crewcut. Of the three, only the 35-year-old McQueary, a devoted member of the American Friends Service Committee, came close to fitting the newspapers' description.

There were few environmentalists in those days, but McQueary's interest in monitoring the government's nuclear program went back years. He had grown up in the town of Granby, and in his senior year of high school, in 1953, had taken a class trip to Nevada and Utah. One day when the class was on its way to St. George, Utah, McQueary says he witnessed a memorable incident: "These very polite men in white suits came on the bus and told us that if we wanted to drive to St. George, we could, but that we had to keep the windows up the entire time, and if we didn't want to agree to this, that we couldn't go. Then they insisted that it was perfectly safe and there was no danger to any humans."

It wasn't until years later that McQueary learned he and his classmates had stumbled across one of the most troubled nuclear experiments ever. It had the code name of "Harry" and later became known as "Dirty Harry" because of an unexpected wind shift that rained radioactive fallout on the town of St. George. So when McQueary learned of plans for another nuclear experiment sixteen years later, he and his fellow protesters decided to take action.

"Because of their 'deep concern' for human beings, they announced that they would not do any nuclear explosions if there were any people within five miles of the blast site," recalls McQueary. "We decided to hold them to their deal."

McQueary, Green, Donithorne, fellow protester Margaret Puhls and about a dozen other people figured they would sneak into the area near ground zero and set off smoke grenades so that officials would know there were people inside the five-mile buffer zone.

The group had to make a couple of trips to the site, as the blast was delayed several days because of weather. Officials said they wanted to wait for a day when the wind wouldn't carry any radioactive fallout over populated areas. The AEC also promised not to blast on a weekend, when tourists might be delayed by necessary road closures.

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