A September 11th Catastrophe You've Probably Never Heard About

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In 1957, America narrowly averted a nuclear meltdown at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado. A new book explores how close we all came to disaster.

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An interior view of the plutonium processing facility at Rocky Flats. (Library of Congress)

On September 11, 1957, 55 years ago tomorrow, a national catastrophe was unfolding, one you likely have never heard about before. At the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver, inside the plutonium processing building, a fire had started in an area designed to be fireproof. Soon it was roaring over, through, and around the carefully constricted plutonium as one Cold-War-era safety feature after another failed. The roof of the building, the building itself, were threatened. And plumes of radioactive smoke went straight up into Colorado's late summer night air. High into the air, if you believe the witnesses.

For 13 hours on the night of the 11th, into the morning the next day, the fire raged inside that building, until firefighters put it out (with water -- exposing themselves, and perhaps the entire front range of Colorado, to an even greater risk of radiation). When it was over, Energy Department officials, and the Dow Chemical officials who then ran the facility, did not share the extent of the catastrophe, or the radiation danger, with local officials or the media. For years, no one really knew how bad it had been, what it meant for those exposed to the radiation, or how such a dangerous event could be prevented in the future.

For some, the story of Rocky Flats, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the annals of America's interaction with the atom, is ancient history. For others, it's a current event. For Kristen Iversen, it's a burden she lives with, physically and psychologically, every day of her life. Iversen is the author of a new book on the subject -- Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, a striking tale of innocence in a time and a place of great danger. It's the story of an American family buying into the myth of nuclear safety, a story of an abuse of trust for which our government still hasn't fully atoned.

We saw last March in Japan, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, the ever-present danger of exposing the instruments of nuclear power and weaponry to the natural world. Just last week, the Defense Department launched the Operation Tomodachi Registry website, designed, in its words, to provide "location-based radiation dose estimate reports for adults and children comprising the DoD-affiliated population on or near mainland Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011." Here's what the Pentagon announcement also said:

After extensive environmental monitoring and analysis, it has been determined that none of the nearly 70,000 members of the DoD-affiliated population (service members, DoD civilian employees and contractors, and family members of service members and civilian employees) who were on or near the mainland of Japan between March 12 and May 11, 2011, are known to have been exposed to radiation at levels associated with adverse medical conditions.

Some will choose to believe this. Others won't. But no one should evaluate such claims in the absence of the context and perspective offered by the events of September 11, 1957. With that in mind, I conducted the following online interview with Iversen:

COHEN: Let's start with September 11, 1957 and the fire in Building 71. In your book, you write:

The men knew not to use water on a plutonium fire. The risk of the blue flash of a criticality, or nuclear chain reaction, was too great. There would likely be no explosion --simply the blue flash signaling the surge of neutron radiation fatal to everyone in the immediate vicinity. But they were desperate. They began using water. For a moment it seemed to work. Then suddenly the air pressure dropped. There was silence, and then a deafening blast... The force twisted the plenum's steel frame, destroying most of the filters, and blew the lead cap off the 152-foot smokestack. Flames shot more than two hundred feet above the rim."

As you look back now on that day, and upon the research you did about it, what strikes you the most about how close we all came to being contaminated?

IVERSEN: The Denver area was, in fact, contaminated. This was a devastating fire. It completely destroyed 620 filters as well as most of the measuring equipment that would reveal how much plutonium was actually released. Those filters had not been changed in four years, and they contained a great deal of plutonium and other particulate. After the fire, plutonium was detected as far away as 30 miles from the plant. That extends well into the Denver area. A school 12 miles from Rocky Flats had heavy plutonium contamination in the soil. And the plume from the 1957 fire traveled, of course, far beyond the Denver metro area. It didn't stop at the border.

Department of Energy officials deny this, but it's likely that a criticality -- a nuclear chain reaction -- occurred during the 1957 fire.... Elements such as strontium-90 and cesium-135 never occur except in the case of a nuclear chain reaction. Based on soil and water testing completed decades later that detected the presence of these elements, some experts -- despite the government's insistence that there has never been a criticality at Rocky Flats -- believe that a criticality accident producing various fission products may have occurred on September 11, 1957.

But the worst thing about the fire was that no one -- except for officials with the Department of Energy and Rocky Flats (then operated by Dow Chemical) -- knew about it. There was no public evacuation, no warning, nothing in the press. Local citizens had no idea. This fire was deliberately hidden from public view. People were exposed to plutonium and other contaminants without their knowledge, although officials at the plant were aware of what was going on.

COHEN: How long did it take for the government, and the private entities involved, to admit to what happened on September 11, 1957? When did it dawn on people, in the area and elsewhere, that this great event had occurred?

IVERSEN: Thirteen years passed before the public began to learn that this fire occurred and had contaminated the Denver metro area -- and it took another devastating fire to force the government and the private companies that operated Rocky Flats to reveal the truth.

Following the Mother's Day fire in 1969, an independent group of scientists conducted off-site testing and found plutonium contamination in areas near Rocky Flats to be 400 to 1,500 times higher than normal (i.e., average background concentrations from global fallout). A biochemist at the University of Colorado noted, "That is the highest ever measured near an urban area, including the city of Nagasaki." The Atomic Energy Commission then conducted its own off-site study, and that study confirmed plutonium contamination as far as thirty miles from the plant.

At that point, officials were forced to admit to off-site plutonium contamination as well as the fact that they had been aware of it for years, although local residents had not been informed or warned. The biggest surprise, however, was the admission that the contamination did not come from the 1969 fire, as had been assumed, but primarily from the devastating 1957 fire. Another source of long-term contamination was the 903 Pad, where more than 5,000 barrels stood out in the open for 11 years and leaked radioactive material into the soil and groundwater.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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