The Boom Years

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

The tumbling rocks sent up huge plumes of dust, and John Rold at first feared that the blast may have "vented" clouds of radioactive gas to the surface. "But soon we could see that it was just dust," he says.

Marilyn Latham remembers officials telling her family members that they probably wouldn't be able to feel the blast in the town of Rifle, which was farther from ground zero than Grand Valley. "They told my mother that if she wanted to watch it, she should put a pan of water out in the front yard and watch it for ripples when they blew up the bomb," Latham recalls. "Well, she sat there watching that pan, and the shock wave came and splashed water all over her and then put a huge crack in the foundation of the house."

At first, the impact of the Rulison blast seemed to have subsided along with the shock wave. Green and Donithorne were taken to the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs on a charge that they had set off fireworks (the smoke grenades) in a national forest. But after officials figured out that the two had been plucked off private land, they figured the only thing they could charge them with was trespassing. To press that case, authorities contacted the property owner. "He didn't want to press charges, because his chicken house fell down and he was mad about that," says Donithorne.

The local papers on the Western Slope never did print their names, referring to them only as the "long-haired protesters."

Atomic Energy Commission officials compensated those who had lost chimneys or suffered other damage to their homes. Even people who are still angry at the government agree that those payments were made quickly and without much fuss. "They handled that about three-quarters right," Lee Hayward says, though he's still peeved that the government failed to clean up a holding pond used as a dumping ground by drilling crews.

Hayward also says his father never got the $200 a month promised him. Under the contract Claude Hayward had signed, he got paid only if the well made money for the energy companies. "We never got a dime out of it," Hayward says.

In the long run, neither did Austral or CER Geonuclear, which saw most of their potential profits disappear when they had to burn off the gas that was too radioactive to sell. Some gas was eventually produced for commercial use, but by then Claude Hayward wasn't around to share in the proceeds. He had died of cancer two years after the blast.

It was only after a few years had passed that the lasting effects of the Rulison blast began to be recognized. The explosion helped reshape Colorado's political landscape, says the man who rode the shock wave into the governor's office in 1974.

Dick Lamm says the fact that Rulison never fulfilled the doomsday prophecies of critics--among other things, it was feared that the bomb might irradiate the Colorado River--doesn't change his mind about the project's foolishness. He knew the odds of a disaster were small, but he says that's beside the point. "The point I was making is that what's important is not the odds, but the stakes," Lamm says. "Even small odds are unacceptable if the stakes are too high, and this was a case of blowing up a nuclear bomb in a way that could contaminate the entire Colorado River basin with tritium. It was insanity."

Lamm says he appreciates the genius of people like Teller and the other scientists. "He's obviously got a huge IQ, but he is monomaniacally focused on nuclear energy," says Lamm. "And this wasn't even nuclear energy, this was nuclear bombs."

The group of people who came together to oppose Rulison stuck together afterward. "That battle led the way to the Olympic battle," Lamm says, referring to the successful effort he spearheaded to prevent Colorado from bidding on the 1976 Winter Olympics.

However, the group wasn't able to prevent yet another Project Plowshare blast in Colorado. That one, also funded by Austral and CER and known as Rio Blanco, was even larger than Rulison. On May 17, 1973, three 30-kiloton bombs were exploded in one long hole in a remote section of Rio Blanco County in northwestern Colorado. Again the idea was to release natural gas trapped in subterranean rock; again the effort failed to make money for its investors. It came and went without much fanfare, sparking fewer protests than Rulison and getting lost amid coverage of Watergate and other stories of the day.

Lamm went on to support a citizens' initiative, passed by a wide margin in 1974, that amended the Colorado Constitution by adding a unique clause. If any group wants to blow up a nuclear bomb in Colorado, the measure now must first pass a statewide vote of the people. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Colorado is the only state in the nation with such a provision.

CER Geonuclear's Hal Aronson, who is now retired and living in Palm Springs, California, says the constitutional amendment was a stake through the heart of Project Plowshare. "There was a bunch of crackpots who didn't really understand it, so they were against it," Aronson says. He characterizes the Rulison protesters as "kids driving their BMWs and their Saabs, spending all of their fathers' money, but they hadn't taken a bath for several weeks. They were just a cause looking for a place to happen."

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