Rocky Flats Cold War Museum Is Out in the Cold

Inside a room at Rocky Flats during the Cold War.
Inside a room at Rocky Flats during the Cold War.
Rocky Flats Cold War Museum

The former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was officially declared cleaned up – or as close to clean as it was going to get – ten years ago. That was fifteen years after the FBI led a pre-dawn raid on the facility that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs, a raid that created a political explosion of its own.

The plant never produced another trigger and was mothballed, then became the subject of a massive, $7 billion remediation completed in October 1995. After that, the Department of Energy transferred 5,000-plus acres of prairie (the DOE kept control of the most contaminated property) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is supposed to reopen it as a wildlife refuge – like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge across town. But while the cleanup of Rocky Flats was completed ahead of schedule, the proposed refuge has fallen behind – not because of concerns about environmental issues, though there are many of those, but because of a lack of funds.

And the future refuge isn't the only place caught short of cash. The Rocky Mountain Cold War Museum – a nonprofit devoted to documenting Rocky Flats from its inception in the early ’50s, when metro Denver fought to win the federal plum, to the secret fires and public protests and, finally, the closure and the cleanup not just of the land, but of the lives of the workers who sacrificed their health on the job – has just lost its second home.

Rocky Flats before the cleanup.
Rocky Flats before the cleanup.

The museum's first location was in Arvada's old post office, where it displayed equipment from the facility – including the glove boxes that workers used to handle radioactive materials, and a newspaper with the headline “Good News Today,” from when metro Denver was awarded the plant in 1951. But the nonprofit couldn't afford the space and left for an office lobby with cheaper rent a few years ago. Now the group cannot come up with even that, and so it packed up last month.

“That means that at the moment, we do not have a display available for the public,” says museum board president Murph Widdowfield in the last newsletter. “Where will we go from here? We still provide speakers and demonstrations on Rocky Flats for citizen, school, social and other interested groups.... There seems to be only one way to afford the cost of a museum building of our own – that is if the federal, state or local government would support it, as they have for some other museums, especially nuclear museums.”

Fish and Wildlife plans to put a visitors' center at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge — and the one at the arsenal does a good job of telling the story of that World War II facility. But with the current budget crunch, no one is expecting a finished center when the refuge finally opens. (The current plans call for a soft rollout next year.) Even so, the museum board has already donated some of its collection to the DOE, in hopes that the materials will one day wind up in the center – and also to cut back on storage costs. “We're still trying to get funding just to pay for storage of stuff,” says boardmember Ann Lockhart.

One of the pits produced at Rocky Flats.
One of the pits produced at Rocky Flats.
Anthony Camera

But the board isn't giving up. In fact, this fall it not only changed its name from the Rocky Flats Institute and Museum back to the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, but also voted to return to its original mission: to document the historical, environmental and scientific aspects of Rocky Flats. The board members are continuing to collect the accounts of former Rocky Flats workers,  continuing to push for funds.

They know that this is an important story to document, to preserve for future generations. After all, while memories can be short, plutonium has a half-life of 25,000 years. 

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