By LeRoy Moore
On April 29, 1978, at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant 16 miles northwest of central Denver, Colorado, a small group of peace activists split off from a larger protest rally and spontaneously formed the Rocky Flats Truth Force. The phrase “truth force” is a literal translation of “satyagraha,” Mohandas Gandhi’s word for what we usually call “nonviolence.” Satyagraha links sat, meaning truth, with agraha, which signifies strength or force. Satyagraha thus is the force of truth, or truth force. The name, Rocky Flats Truth Force acknowledges an awareness of the power of nonviolent action even as it conveys a commitment to Gandhi’s way of life and method for social change.
The 35 original members of what quickly became the Rocky Flats Truth Force spontaneously turned what was originally conceived as an overnight symbolic blockade of the railroad tracks leading in to the Rocky Flats Plant into a literal blockade with people occupying the tracks off and on for the better part of a year – a “year of disobedience.” Why did this happen? Because those who found themselves engaged in sustained civil disobedience on the tracks knew that if they could disrupt production at Rocky Flats they would impede the whole vast U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, thereby throwing a wrench in the machinery of the escalating nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the USSR. But they also opposed Rocky Flats because they were well versed in the fact that Rocky Flats was not simply a global threat, it was also a local hazard. Various toxins, most notably plutonium, which in very small amounts can harm one’s health if taken into the body, had been released from Rocky Flats and scattered across broad swaths of the Denver metro area.
Truth Force members knew that bomb making done at Rocky Flats endangered workers in the plant as well as people who lived and worked in areas downwind and downstream from the site. The role of Rocky Flats in the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise was quite distinct. Since operations began at Rocky Flats in 1952, the facility had manufactured the fissionable plutonium “pit” at the core of every single nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal. A plutonium pit in and of itself is essentially an atomic bomb, like the one that destroyed the City of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (the Hiroshima bomb was made not with plutonium but with uranium). Most of the 70,000 or so pits made at Rocky Flats over a period of 37 years were capable of unleashing far more destructive force than the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
More importantly, most pits produced at Rocky Flats were made as the fissionable “triggers” of thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs (the fission explosion of the plutonium pit triggers the vastly greater potency of the fusion explosion of a form of hydrogen called tritium). Hence, it is often said that the principal product at Rocky Flats was plutonium “triggers.” Those who stayed on the tracks as April 1978 turned into May soon were calling themselves the Rocky Flats Truth Force. Their action inspired others to join them, so that when protestors were arrested and removed from the tracks they were quickly replaced by new recruits or repeat performers.
Over time hundreds of determined nonviolentresisters came to the tracks, some to join the blockade, others to bring food, clothes, blankets, and sleeping bags. The little tent city that grew up along the tracks would be resurrected when it was raided and taken down by security officers. After hundreds of arrests and a historic trial with jail sentences for some, the year of disobedience concluded with 300 arrests a year to the day after the initiation of the original Truth Force blockage. By this time Rocky Flats and the resistance to what was done there was well known far and wide. The Rocky Flats protests helped trigger the national and international movement for nuclear disarmament that was so prominent a feature of the national and global politics of the 1980s. Ten years of unrelenting scientific scrutiny and persistent political protests culminated in the June 6, 1989, FBI/EPA raid on the beleaguered plant to collect evidence of violation of federal environmental laws. Rockwell International, which then operated the plant, asserted that it couldn’t meet the Department of Energy’s production demands without breaking the law.
DOE promptly fired Rockwell and in November halted production “temporarily,” spending almost $2 billion over the next two years trying unsuccessfully to get back on line. Early in 1992 the manufacture of plutonium pits and other bomb components at Rocky Flats officially ended. Soon thereafter the facility’s mission was changed from production to cleanup and closure. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury spent two-and-a-half years examining evidence gathered by the FBI back in 1989. Calling Rocky Flats “an ongoing criminal enterprise,” the grand jurors brought indictments against several high-ranking DOE and Rockwell officials for major breaches of law, only to have the Department of Justice and the federal court ignore the grand jury and settle with Rockwell out of court.
The court then, in a massive coverup, sealed the evidence of environmental lawbreaking that the jurors had investigated and forbade them to tell what they had learned. To this day the public therefore does not know crucial details about contamination on and off the Rocky Flats site (for more information on the grand jury see http://ambushedgrandjury.com/ and http://www.trialbriefs.com/RockyFlats.htm).
With production ended, the focus at Rocky Flats shifted by 1993 to cleaning and closing a badly contaminated site where once 5 to 6,000 or so employees produced three plutonium pits or triggers per day and where more than 14 tons of plutonium were stored in various configurations (one bomb requires 6 to 9 pounds). In 1994-95 DOE funded a broadly representative ad hoc group that was asked to tell DOE what sort of cleanup the public wanted. In June 1995 this group made a consensus recommendation that Rocky Flats be cleaned to the maximum extent possible with existing technology with a long- range goal of cleanup to background.
All extant advisory bodies plus other groups and individuals quickly adopted this proposal, making it without exception the most widely supported Rocky Flats cleanup recommendation ever made. It may as well have been dropped down a well, because it was initially totally ignored not only by the DOE but also by the two government agencies that would regulate the cleanup, the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
Eventually officials of all these agencies treated with scorn anyone who dared mention the 1995 consensus recommendation that Rocky Flats be cleaned now to the maximum extent possible with along-term goal of cleanup to background. Instead, an elaborate, somewhat farcical and very time-consuming public participation process was set in motion, purportedly so DOE and the regulators could work closely with the public in determining the cleanup and accomplishing it with public oversight. Suffice here to say that well along the way, after several years of intense public participation, those who kept pressing for the best cleanup possible finally were told that they couldn’t get what they sought because a decision had long since been made that set a ceiling on how much could be spent on the cleanup. In short, the real driver of the cleanup was not environmental integrity or public health but dollars.
All activity related to cleanup and closure of the site would be done within ten years for $7 billion. The Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement drawn up by DOE and the regulators established the legally binding cleanup standards. When the final draft of this document was put out for public comment 86% of the commenting parties rejected it and called for something better. It was nevertheless adopted with only minor changes. Rocky Flats would be cleaned to the level required to turn most of the 10 square mile site into a wildlife refuge. Significant quantities of plutonium and other toxins would remain in the environment. For meeting the standards and finishing the job early and under budget, Kaiser-Hill, the prime cleanup contractor, received $561 million. For more detail on the cleanup, see LeRoy Moore, “Rocky Flats: The Bait and Switch Cleanup,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January-February 2005; on line at http://www.rmpjc.org/RFBaitandSwitch.
In 2007 DOE transferred all but about 1,300 acres of the 6,500-acre Rocky Flats site to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which will operate this land as a wildlife refuge. Despite being told by 81% of the parties commenting on their plan to open the wildlife refuge to public recreation, FWS decided that this is exactly what it will do. Those of us who oppose hiking, biking, and picnicking at a site contaminated with plutonium will try to get this decision reversed, or, failing his, will work to have signs posted at entries informing people of the risks entailed in venturing onto the refuge. The Rocky Flats Truth Force, which came into existence on the tracks at Rocky Flats in 1978, inspired a generation of activists and provided impetus to a successful movement to close Rocky Flats and to slow the nuclear arms race.
For details, contact the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, phone 303-444-6981.