The Half-Life of Memory: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear Trigger, exposes the ongoing and incredible true story of the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb factory, located just outside of Denver, Colorado. The plutonium contaminated site, once called a “factory of death,” will soon open to the public – unless citizens stop it..
Buried beneath a windy plateau at the base of the Rocky Mountains lies the remains of a top- secret nuclear weapons manufacturing plant known as Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats produced 70,000 plutonium cores, or “triggers”, for use in thermonuclear bombs. Each core, in itself, is an atomic bomb that carries the killing power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Local citizens were unaware of the bomb plant and the products it produced until a major plutonium fire in 1969 sent a plume of smoke across the Denver Metro Area. After the fire, previously undisclosed accidents and routine releases of radioactive material were exposed. News of these events triggered large scale protests and helped set off a national anti-nuclear movement that pushed for an end to nuclear proliferation.
Opposition to Rocky Flats came to a tipping point in 1989 when the FBI and EPA raided the nuclear weapons plant. The raid came in response to credible reports of long-concealed criminal radioactive waste violations. Illegal disposal of toxic waste led to vast contamination of air, soil, and water at Rocky Flats and downwind communities. After the extraordinary raid a special federal grand jury was convened to investigate environmental crimes and Rocky Flats was added to the EPA’s National Priority (Superfund cleanup) List. The special federal grand jury described the plant as an “an ongoing criminal enterprise" and members of the Jury voted to indict officials with Rockwell International and the Department of Energy who controlled the plant. Instead, the Department of Justice made deals with the Department of Energy and Rockwell, sealed the evidence, and silenced the special federal grand jury.
Contractors eventually admitted that they could not operate Rocky Flats in compliance with environmental law. Hazardous waste contamination and strong public opposition at Rocky Flats, and throughout the nuclear complex, finally forced the bomb plant to close in 1993. A heated debate then ensued on the standards for “Decomissioning and Decontaminating” the sprawling 10 square mile site and over 800 structures. Ultimately, a compromise cleanup plan was chosen that allowed for higher levels of radioactive contaminants and subsurface infrastructure to remain onsite. The compromise cleanup spent a fraction of the price and time of the original estimate, sacrificing protections for human health and safety.
Now, little more than a decade after the cleanup at Rocky Flats was declared complete, the site’s past has been buried, many workers have become ill, families are moving onto contaminated lands, and the outer area of the former nuclear site has been rechristened as a National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the active Superfund site inner core and major concerns from the local community, the federal government plans to open the refuge as a public wildlife park in 2018. Maybe…
The U.S. production of nuclear weapons has left a lingering legacy of contaminated lands and peoples. Over 300 facilities from across the nation have contributed to building the nuclear warheads currently active in the United States’ arsenal. Many of these facilities, their workers, nearby residents and and surrounding lands have been contaminated with radioactive, toxic and hazardous waste from years of production during the Cold War. Now, the institutional memory of these sites is being lost. Documents have been destroyed, or kept from public view, leading some people fear that the story is purposefully being rewritten.
Nuclear contamination at Rocky Flats will remain radioactive for thousands of generations. Many local activists, experts, and former workers contest the opening of the former nuclear site to the public, yet, the USFWS has begun private tours of Rocky Flats, with plans to open the property to the public in the summer of 2018. If the government is successful, Rocky Flats will become the first plutonium contaminated site in the nation to open to the public - but it will not be the last. The push to open former nuclear sites as a public wildlife parks is thought by some to be a strategy of the US government to bury past injustices and to carry on support for nuclear weapons production. The Rocky Flats refuge is a template for nuclear clean-up sites across the nation, including Hanford in Washington.
The refuge designation has drastically accelerated the loss of memory at Rocky Flats, and once the site opens for hiking and biking, knowledge of the land’s toxic past will fade even further. Murph Widdowfield, the president of the Rocky Flats Cold War museum, said of the DOE, “They just want us to go away.” The DOE has actively worked against the the realization of a Rocky Flats museum even though there is a provision in the refuge litigation that stipulates the establishment of the museum. It has become apparent that the DOE seeks to bury Rocky Flats past and present a new “green” creation story that attempts to sanitize the landscape from the violence of its military past.
In the article, “The Half-Life of Memory” (where this film borrows its title), author Hannah Nordhaus writes, “Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. The half-life of memory, by contrast, is a much briefer thing. The contamination at Rocky Flats will long outlive our efforts to control or even remember it.”
The global threat of nuclear annihilation hasn’t subsided either. Growing tensions between nuclear nations, coupled with the United States’ $1 trillion plan to rebuild the U.S. nuclear stockpile have many people fearing a second Cold War is near - Donald Trump’s provocations aren’t soothing these uncertainties. As the U.S. embarks on a new nuclear buildup, many people are left wondering how we will remember the previous one. As George Santayana’s famous aphorism goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The events at Rocky Flats and across the nuclear weapons complex demonstrate that it is up to us as citizens to not only remember, but to prevent these grievous mistakes from occurring again. It is imperative now more than ever to remember the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons production, and to prevent actions that could lead to nuclear annihilation.
The Half-Life of Memory is an eye opening film that expose the impact of nuclear weapons globally and locally. The intent of this project is to demonstrate that the injustices at Rocky Flats, sadly, are not isolated incidents but a common occurrence in the military complex. The film will explore the secrecy, cover-ups and half-truths that have overshadowed the legacy of the nuclear arsenal, while educating its viewers to the extreme human, ecological, and monetary costs of building nuclear bombs. The film will also shed light on the potential consequences of our nation’s current nuclear policy decisions on both U.S. and global citizens. The lessons this story holds are too important to forget; the urgency to spread this knowledge is dire.