Rocky Flats museum exhibit honors nuclear workers -- and reveals their double lives

The Rocky Flats Institute and Museum and the Cold War Patriots opened a new exhibit in the museum's temporary location in Olde Town Arvada just in time for today's National Day of Remembrance honoring this country's nuclear workers. I Remember Rocky: Rocky Flats History Retold, 1951-1959 focuses on the first decade of the former nuclear weapons plant, and opens a window on a highly secret world of Denver-area nuclear workers. Says museum director Connie Bogaard: "Many workers were essentially living a double life -- one at the plant, and one outside of it as part of the community."

Bogaard and the museum board hosted an opening of the show last Friday. "I'm so excited for what I've learned the past few months about the almost unimaginable life of working within the fence and not being able to talk about it," Bogaard said at the opening of the exhibit, which includes period photographs of the plant and artifacts from inside Rocky Flats, which the Department of Defense starting building right outside of Arvada in 1951, with the goal of producing plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs.

The photographs in the exhibit document a variety of subjects, from the building of the Rocky Flats plant itself to the aftermath of a 1957 fire in the Plutonium Recovery and Fabrication Facility. "Many of the photos you see on display had no labels," explained Bogaard. "It was up to former workers to interpret and label them for us."

Among the artifacts on display are a gas mask used by nuclear workers and an old typewriter recovered from the plant. There's also a large Remembrance Quilt comprised of 1,250 squares which were collected by the Cold War Patriots at over twenty events held across the country in 2011, each one bearing a former nuclear worker's name, location and years of service and representing a fraction of the 700,000 nuclear workers in the United States over the years. The quilt -- much like the opening reception for the show last Friday -- was designed to "bring awareness to [the] men and women who helped build our nation's nuclear arsenal," according to a brochure from CWP.

"This museum is founded on telling the stories we're allowed to tell," museum president Dan James, a professor of humanities at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, told the crowd that gathered for the opening. "I believe that the Cold War -- not World War I or World War II -- was the defining conflict of the twentieth century."

On September 18, the Senate passed a resolution designating October 30, 2013, as the fifth annual National Day of Remembrance, a day that honors nuclear weapons workers and uranium miners who have served their country since the Manhattan Project in 1942.

The new exhibit and the upcoming National Day of Remembrance weren't the only causes for celebration last Friday. A ruling made by a presidential advisory board on Wednesday, October 16, will finally make financial compensation possible for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former nuclear workers who believe they contracted cancer due to the nature of their work at Rocky Flats.

"I worked there from September 1961 all the way through June of 2004," said former Rocky Flats employee Don Sabec. "In 2007, I discovered that I had cancer in my right eye. It was due to minor radiation exposure that I experienced repeatedly, over and over again throughout the years."

"I just wish the federal government would give money to everyone who deserves it," added Dave Rupert, a member of the Air Force during the Cold War years. "My boss was General Curtis Lemay, and I had top-secret clearance back then. There are still some things I'm not allowed to talk about."

The Rocky Flats Institute and Museum, which recently changed its name from the Rocky Mountain Cold War Museum, aims to tell those untold stories. "This museum offers a way of learning about our past and using that to move toward the future we want," said James. "I don't know what our plans are, but I know what I'm looking for -- a permanent home."

And he firmly believes the future home of the museum should be the former site of the Rocky Flats plant -- sixteen miles upwind of Denver, Colorado.

In the meantime, the Rocky Flats museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at its temporary location at 5690 Webster Street in Arvada. Find more information here.

More from our archives: "Rocky Flats Museum on the move."

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Nick Petrak
Contact: Nick Petrak