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Rocky Flats Cold War Museum: Memories of the first (surreal) Rocky Flats museum

As recently noted in Westword, plans are heating up to build a permanent Rocky Flats Cold War Museum in a onetime Arvada post office. It won't be the first Rocky Flats museum, however. That distinction belongs to an operation that used to exist on the grounds of the nuclear weapons plant -- one of the strangest museums I've ever visited.

I stopped by the original Rocky Flats museum in early 2004 while working on a series of articles about the facility for Boulder Weekly. The plant, which hadn't operated since 1989, was in the midst of its ten-year, $7 billion decommission and decontamination process, and at some point officials had thought it a good idea to organize a museum of sorts in the visitors' center by the plant's entrance.

The result was downright surreal. From what I remember, the small operation didn't feature many exhibits, but what it did have packed quite a wallop. Near the entrance, a podium displayed a round metal puck secured to a base by a thin wire that visitors could pick up for a closer look. A label simply read, "Plutonium puck." There was no disclaimer as to whether it was a replica of the plutonium pucks Rocky Flats workers used to make the triggers for the Cold War's bombs or the real deal -- and no word as to what would happen if you were to lick it or use a pair of wire cutters to pocket a radioactive keepsake.

Nearby, another hands-on exhibit featured a title along the lines of "Radioactivity is All Around Us!" The display featured a Geiger counter that folks could use to check the radioactivity of a variety of household items such as Fiestaware. The setup was downright creepy, as if Rocky Flats folks were suggesting you're just as likely to get sick from your Technicolor salad bowls as, say, the radioactive waste Rocky Flats workers apparently dumped into the grounds and creeks around the weapons plant for years.

All that was missing from the museum's peculiar lineup was Smilin' Joe Fission, the educational mascot of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons:

Even stranger, the only other place to visit around the area, a lonely stretch of the Front Range south of Boulder, was the Rocky Flats Lounge, a shabby dive bar across the road from the plant. In some ways, the two operations went together perfectly. Who wouldn't want to get all liquored up, then lick some plutonium pucks?

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Sadly, those days are over. The Rocky Flats visitors' center, like the rest of the buildings at the weapons plant, has been demolished to prepare for a wildlife refuge on the site. The good news is that much of the material is stored away pending the opening of the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum in Arvada. Maybe soon enough you, too, can find out what, exactly, a plutonium puck tastes like on your tongue.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Marijuana patients get their humor tested by nutty professor Peter McGraw in Wired." Follow Joel Warner on Twitter @joelmwarner

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