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Chain Reaction

The Cold War has ended, but the fight over where to put a Rocky Flats museum has just begun.

While Coloradans no longer have to live in fear of Soviet nuclear weapons obliterating metro Denver, the end of the Cold War hasn't brought peace to the western suburbs. Instead, two local governments are squabbling over a proposed museum that would chronicle the history of the former Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.

In a bill submitted last week that calls for the creation of a National Wildlife Refuge once the heavily polluted site is cleaned up, Congressman Mark Udall and Senator Wayne Allard suggest Arvada as the future home of a Cold War museum dedicated to Colorado's notorious plutonium pile. Although the idea is just that -- there is no money as of yet for such a museum -- the initial draft of the proposal prompted an angry letter to Udall from Golden city manager Michael Bestor.

"We are concerned that the location of the Rocky Flats Museum appears to have been decided without an open and competitive public process," Bestor wrote. "The city of Golden has many fine museums that are actively supported by both volunteer citizen groups and substantial city resources. I do not know if there is substantial interest in locating the museum in Golden, but believe that your bill should require the [U.S. Department of Energy] secretary, at the appropriate time, to solicit proposals from nearby jurisdictions that are interested."

That was enough to bring an outraged response from Arvada city manager Craig Kocian, who scoffed at Golden's request that it be allowed to join the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, a group of local communities that have been working with federal officials involved in the cleanup and future planning of the site.

"What if any impacts can Golden claim as a result of the Flats' existence?" asked Kocian. "Is Golden downwind of the Flats in the 'wind nose'; was any structure in Golden 'blue lined' by H.U.D in the 1970s for health effects; did you suffer any unusual growth directly related to the Flats? Golden is nine miles from Rocky Flats and is only that close because of the very recent growth in the mountain backdrop. Arvada suffered all of the above ill effects of proximity and grew explosively immediately after the Flats was located in 1952. The logic of your correspondence would have one believe that the coalition should include Commerce City and Nederland.

"Given the historical and museum assets you list," he continued, "one might be led to believe that Golden could be magnanimous on this issue. Apparently not. Please bear in mind that Arvada has historically been the primary Rocky Flats energy community and has the greatest number of Rocky Flats retirees. Arvada has consistently been the leader and often the only voice for preserving the legacy of Rocky Flats, good and bad, and for memorializing the sweat, blood, tears, and sacrifices of those Cold Warriors who patriotically got the job done day in and day out. Forgive me if I conclude that your support and complaint seems a bit tardy and much more opportunistic."

The dispute isn't the first time Arvada has wrangled with one of its neighbors over Rocky Flats. During the past year, the city infuriated several local communities by trying to reserve part of the site for future development ("Forbidden Fruit," August 10). At the end of August, however, the city surrendered and endorsed the Udall/Allard bill.

The bill gives the Secretary of Energy the authority to establish a Rocky Flats museum and says that the museum "shall be located in the city of Arvada, unless...the secretary determines otherwise." It also specifically calls for the government to consult with Arvada, as well as other local communities and the Colorado Historical Society, "on the development of the museum, its siting and any other issues relevant to its development and construction."

All of this politicking is a heady experience for the small group of people who have been meeting informally to talk about how to preserve the history of the former bomb factory. Known as the Rocky Flats History Group, they include retired Rocky Flats employees and academics. "Part of the problem is that people forget," says Bryan Taylor, a professor of communication in the University of Colorado who has been active in the group. "If we can't get people to remember Rocky Flats in 2000, what will they remember in 3000?"

Taylor has been studying the approach that other museums around the country have taken to the Cold War and says such exhibits often become controversial because of the divisions within American society over the nuclear-arms race. "It's a really volatile topic," he says. "Public opinion was deeply polarized during the Atomic Age. People had deeply defended and visceral beliefs."

The most notorious example of museum controversy was the 1995 display of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first bomb over Hiroshima, and its showing was accompanied by a text that suggested the use of the bomb was a war crime. Many veterans were outraged, since they believe the bomb spared the lives of tens of thousands of Americans who would have perished in a bloody land invasion of Japan.

Taylor says this sort of controversy could dog the proposed Rocky Flats museum, since Coloradans were also divided over whether the bomb factory was a blessing or a curse. "It's incredibly important to keep this alive in our local memory," says Taylor. "The people who worked there are convinced they performed a heroic and patriotic act. The people who protested think if this is forgotten it could happen again. My goal would be to have a museum that's representative of people's experience and doesn't necessarily tell one story one way."

But in other parts of the country, Cold War museums have proven to be popular attractions. In Albuquerque, the National Atomic Museum draws about 120,000 people per year to displays that highlight the development of the nuclear bomb and New Mexico's role in that history. The museum includes reproductions of Little Boy and Fat Man, the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. "At every point in human history, there's something that's considered to be the ultimate weapon," says Jim Wadell, assistant director of the museum. "There certainly is an interest in this."

It's this interest, says Rocky Flats History Group member John Corsi, that should keep the goal of having a museum alive despite political controversy or disagreement about where to put it. His suggestions for the museum include preserving an abandoned farmhouse and barn on the property that go back to homesteading days and including the story of the protests that helped spur the decision to close the plant.

"I think it should show all the perspectives on Rocky Flats," Corsi says. "It should tell what it was like to work here, what the activists' perspective was in the 1970s, and how the cleanup process took place.

"Hate it or love it, it's a historically significant story."

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