Bombs Away!

The government built a nuclear-weapons plant sixteen miles upwind of Denver. But decades passed before the public got wind of what was happening there.

In the spring of 1951, engineering consultants for the Atomic Energy Commission crisscrossed the West, discreetly scoping out potential locations for a new government plant. Their mission was urgent and of the utmost secrecy; not even the governors of the states where the sprawling facility might be located had been informed of the search.

The new plant, code-named Project Apple, had the usual requirements of any new industry: ample land that could be acquired with relative ease, a good transportation system, a dependable utility company, a moderate climate and a stable workforce. Those last two requirements were particularly important. The plant would have miles of pipes and ventilation ducts that would suction air out of rooms many times a day, and the plant managers didn't want to locate in a climate where air conditioning would be necessary. In addition, prospective employees would have to undergo background checks by the FBI in order to obtain the Q clearances needed before they could even set foot inside the plant. The clearances were expensive and time-consuming, and plant officials, already with an eye toward the bottom line, viewed a high turnover rate as "extremely undesirable."

The Atomic Energy Commission, the omnipotent federal agency that had come into existence after the war, wanted the plant to be located somewhere west of the Mississippi River, east of Utah, and no further south than the Texas Panhandle. The selection team narrowed the potential sites to nine cities, then winnowed down the list again, coming up with three possible contenders, all of which happened to be in Colorado: Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. Pueblo was jettisoned because of its inaccessibility, and Colorado Springs was eliminated because of its small utility company. That left Denver, which, in the group's opinion, outstripped all the other cities in terms of its "attractive environs and recreational opportunities."

Rocky Flats workers manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that protruded from airtight glove boxes.
Rocky Flats workers manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that protruded from airtight glove boxes.
Rocky Flats workers manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that protruded from airtight glove boxes.
Rocky Flats workers manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that protruded from airtight glove boxes.

Once Denver had been selected, AEC bureaucrats and officials from Dow Chemical Company, the contractor selected to manage the new plant, checked into the Olin Hotel at 1420 Logan Street. Over the next few days, they scouted out seven sites in the Denver area, including one near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, another near Gunbarrel Hill in Boulder County and a third near Marston Lake.

When their heavy sedans rumbled up a lonely back road and stopped on top of a barren plateau, they knew they had found the perfect location. The windswept expanse was desolate and foreboding, seemingly devoid of all life except the wind, which ruffled their topcoats and carried a whiff of evergreens and fresh snow. Rocks and boulders were scattered across the plateau, and three small streams trickled down through the brown surface toward the valley below. The low-slung skyline of Denver, already a burgeoning metropolis of 415,000 people, was just visible through the haze.

On that treeless mesa, aptly named Rocky Flats, the federal government decided to build Project Apple, a playful name given to a deadly serious business. For the new plant would produce nothing resembling apples. It would make plutonium pits: spherical cores that were heavier than lead, more toxic than arsenic and capable of producing an unimaginable explosion.

In a formerly secret report, the AEC's engineering consultants advised the commission that Rocky Flats land was cheap and could be obtained with the least amount of trouble. It was also "well removed from any residential area," yet still within driving distance of Denver, Boulder and Golden, "over highways with very little commuting traffic."

The consultants also analyzed the wind patterns and concluded that the prevailing winds were from the south. That was another fortuitous development. Rocky Flats would be processing hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals, including plutonium, known at that time to be one of the most carcinogenic materials on earth. Given the mission, businessmen and government officials realized that the plant should not be located "leeward of any densely populated area." But there was one problem: The consultants had obtained their information from data at Stapleton Airport, which was located some twenty miles east of Rocky Flats. And the data was wrong.

The prevailing winds from Rocky Flats blow east and southeast toward Denver and its northern suburbs. Descending the eastern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and whipping across the rock-strewn plateau, the wind scours up debris, dust and contaminants and flings them toward Denver. "Such information," writes Len Ackland, a professor and journalist at the University of Colorado in Boulder whose book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, was published last fall, "should have eliminated Rocky Flats as a potential nuclear weapons plant site."

But the arms race was on, and the way the wind blew was of little importance to war planners. Fearful that the Soviet Union might be the first to build a workable hydrogen bomb, military leaders were in a hurry to build a new facility that could make plutonium pits, some of which would be used as "triggers" to ignite hydrogen bombs, apocalyptic weapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people at once. In their haste, the AEC and Dow Chemical Company had made a potentially deadly error even before the first shovelful of dirt had been turned. But it would not be the first -- or the last -- mistake that plant officials were to make over the next four decades.

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