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Between 1952 and 1988, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was responsible for the operation of the Rocky Flats Plant. The Dow Chemical Company managed the facility on behalf of the AEC, producing nuclear material for atomic weapons. Located about 15 miles (24.13 kilometers) northwest of Denver, Colorado, the site was a windy plateau called Rocky Flats. The ground breaking for the facility was on July 10, 1951; in 1953 the plant began production of plutonium triggers, which were used in nuclear weapons assembled at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas. Between 1953 and 1957 the construction of facilities at Rocky Flats continued. In 1957 there were 27 buildings when an industrial accident resulted in a fire in Building 71. After the fire Building 71 was found to be radioactive and an incinerator for eliminating plutonium waste was installed in the patched remains of Building 71, which began operation in 1958. In 1959 radioactive waste stored in barrels in an open field at Rocky Flats leaked. The public was not notified of the problem and radioactive materials were allowed to remain in the open, blowing in the wind. In 1969 another major fire produced the most expensive industrial accident in American history up to that time.
As the danger of radioactive contamination had increased, a larger buffer zone of 4,600 acres (18 square kilometers) was created in 1972. However, in 1973 tritium was detected in creeks and other areas in the vicinity of the Rocky Flats plant. In the late 1970s protests by pacifists and in turn by supporters of nuclear weapons increased. By the 1980s, peace activists were able to increase the size of their demonstrations. In 1985 Rocky Flats was able to receive industrial recognition for the safety of its operations. However, only three years later the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a scathing report on its safety failures. The EPA fined the plant for environmental violations. Safety issues became so charged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began receiving tips from employee whistle blowers about unsafe conditions at the plant. After an investigation, the FBI charged the DOE with violating federal antipollution laws. The case was resolved when Rockwell paid a small fine for the crimes.
In 1993 all of the Rocky Flats weapons grade nuclear material was transferred to other facilities. The next year, the name Rocky Flats was changed to Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site. During the late 1990s and early 2000s massive clean up projects were instituted. In 2003, the cleanup was completed; however, some areas still remained radioactive. In 2006, a federal jury awarded $354 million to landowners downwind from Rocky Flats. Dow and Rockwell appealed the verdict because they believe that the radioactive releases were too small to cause harm.
- Len Ackland, Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (University of New Mexico Press, 2002);
- Kim Cameron and Marc Levine, Making the Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Per]ormance-the Rocky Flats Story (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).