CU prof: Scrutiny of nuke policies needed

Author warns of secrecy at Rocky Flats, nationwide

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

November 09, 1999

Despite the dangers of operating Rocky Flats and the controversies the former nuclear-weapons plant south of Boulder has stirred over the years, the plant's history has not been widely told or interpreted.

Len Ackland, a CU-Boulder journalism professor, hopes to help change that with his recently published book, "Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West."

Ackland, a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and former editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, will speak about his book at 3:30 p.m. today in the Old Main Chapel on the CU campus.

The title of the free talk asks, "As Rocky Flats Made Nuclear Bombs, Where Were the Media and the Citizens?" It is a reflection, Ackland says, of the need for the public to scrutinize government operations -- especially when it comes to issues of national security and nuclear weapons.

"While the Cold War has ended, the nuclear weapons age hasn't, and we need to engage with those issues in a much stronger way than we have," Ackland said in an interview.

To Ackland, Rocky Flats is not just a local concern but also epitomizes what can happen when the secrecy of the nation's "nuclear priesthood" is allowed to rule national security policy.

"I used Rocky Flats as a window for looking into the Cold War," he said. "I think the story of Rocky Flats is bigger than itself."

Ackland, an Aurora native and CU graduate, spent nine years interviewing past and current plant managers and employees, sifting through documents from national archives, and filing open-records requests. His book is the first to chronicle the history of Rocky Flats, which produced nuclear-weapons components from 1952 until 1989.

Comprehensive yet concise, it tells the story of the plant through the eyes of government officials, workers, peace and environmental activists and the plant's neighbors.

"It's a story about people," Ackland said. "The main question I was curious about was, 'Why did humans create huge arsenals of nuclear weapons capable of destroying our species?'"

During the first 18 years of the plant's existence, the public and the media seemed to blindly accept the government's line that Rocky Flats operations must be secret to protect national security, Ackland said.

"The larger questions weren't asked about nuclear weapons being defined as necessary," he said.

Only after a major fire in 1969, which came close to contaminating the entire Denver area with deadly plutonium, did the press start asking probing questions, Ackland said. As the media and the public stepped up their scrutiny, it led to greater accountability for the operators of Rocky Flats.

"One of the positive parts about Rocky Flats was that there was a strong citizens' movement and challenges were mounted against secrecy and the nuclear weapons production," Ackland said.

The scrutiny came to a head in 1989, when FBI agents raided the plant looking for evidence of environmental crimes. The plant's contractor, Rockwell International, eventually pleaded guilty to violations and paid an $18-million fine.

Meanwhile, as peace activists started questioning the nation's nuclear-weapons policies, they helped sway public opinion against the nuclear arms race, Ackland's book suggests.

With the end of the Cold War and the new cleanup mission at Rocky Flats, public attention has waned, Ackland said. Local media are no longer reporting in-depth on Rocky Flats, his book notes.

But this is no time for the public or the media to be slacking off, he warned.

Without public involvement at Rocky Flats, there is a risk that the Department of Energy will walk away from a dirty site, he said.

"DOE and Kaiser-Hill have been in such a hurry to declare victory at Rocky Flats and move on," Ackland asserted. "It certainly isn't going to be clean the way most people think."

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of former nuclear workers at Rocky Flats and nationwide are suffering from health problems, and the government has yet to guarantee them the health benefits they deserve, Ackland writes in his book.

On a global scale, the arms race on the Indian subcontinent and the U.S. Senate's rejection of the nuclear test-ban treaty illustrate that humanity is still not safe from the threat of a nuclear holocaust, Ackland said.

"I think that unfortunately, we're facing a real possibility of another nuclear arms race," he said.

And in the wake of alleged nuclear espionage by the Chinese, government secrecy may be making a comeback, he warned.

One of the main lessons from Rocky Flats should be that "national security is far too important to be left to the experts," Ackland said.

"The nuclear experts and the government were left in control of nuclear policy," he said. "In a democratic society, it's not supposed to work like that."