P A R T IIIThe Industry's Underside
8Bomb Production at Rocky Flats: Death Downwind
Kristen Haag was born in 1967. Rex, her father, was a well-to-do contractor in suburban Denver who did all he could to show his blue-eyed daughter the world. "She had a happy childhood," he said. "She rode horses, she rode motorcycles. She went to Hawaii, she went to the mountains. She was just a beautiful, high-spirited girl that everybody loved, that never really lacked for anything."
In March of 1979, at age eleven, Kris bumped her knee. In early May doctors found a malignancy; she was diagnosed as having bone cancer. Her leg was amputated, and she began undergoing chemotherapy. "It didn't slow her down much," Haag said. "She swam. She got her swimming certificate, her life-saving at the end of the summer." Kristen asked her parents to get her amputated leg analyzed, "so other children won't get what I've got."
Kris Haag died before the year ended. Her parents agonized over where her disease could have come from and then heard about a fire at the Rocky Flats plutonium facility, six miles from their home. "When she was just two years old I built her a sandbox in the backyard," her father told us. "I later found out that was the year they had the big fire at Rocky Flats."
In talking with us and with a film crew from Dark Circle, a documentary on nuclear hazards, Rex Haag outlined his fear that the same factory whose sloppy practices had killed Leroy Krumback and his coworkers inside its walls had also claimed his daughter six miles away. "The plutonium that went out with that fire must've carried right into her sandbox. It just tears me up to think about it now. We were right downwind."
So was Denver.
Like the dozen-odd other facilities in the American nuclear weapons production chain, Rocky Flats has been plagued not only with hazardous working conditions, but with accidents and uncontrolled radiation emissions that have threatened the health of millions of downwind Americans like the Haag family.
At Rocky Flats two major fires and a wide range of accidents and unexpected leaks have led to charges that the plant has seriously contaminated the nearby countryside; has caused a plague of reproductive problems, mutations, and death among farm animals downwind; and has led to an escalated cancer rate among human residents in the Denver area. It has also raised serious questions about the entire process of producing nuclear bombs.
1. Rex Haag, quoted in Dark Circle, and Rex Haag, interview, May 1981.
The American handling of atomic weapons in peacetime has been riddled with mishaps. The most spectacular accidents have come in the mere transport of the bombs from one place to another.
In early 1958, for example, a B-47 crashed into a fighter plane and jettisoned a nuclear weapon into the sea off Savannah Beach, Georgia. The bomb was never found.
Later that year another B-47 accidentally dropped an atomic bomb while flying over Florence, South Carolina. When it hit the ground, an explosion with the power of several hundred pounds of TNT blasted out a crater thirty-five feet deep and spread a ring of plutonium around the area. Local residents preparing for a family picnic heard it coming and barely had time to duck for cover. "It blew out the side and top of the garage just as my boy ran inside with me," said Walter "Bill" Gregg, whose family was injured in the blast. "The timbers were falling around us. There was a green, foggy haze, then a cloud of black smoke. It lasted about thirty seconds. When it cleared up, I looked at the house. The top was blown in and a side almost blown off." The government later dragged Gregg's compensation claims through the courts. He finally won fifty-four thousand dollars, but was left deeply embittered by the experience.
In 1961 two more American atomic bombs were dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina, by a crashing B-52. One deployed a parachute, which eased its fall to earth; the other broke apart on impact. Another B-52 with four hydrogen bombs aboard crashed into an ice floe near Thule, Greenland. The entire plane and its cargo apparently disintegrated, leaving a radioactive hole nearly half a mile long in its wake. With abundant apologies to the Danish government, which rules Greenland, the military was forced to ship 1.7 million gallons of contaminated ice and snow back to the United States for disposal. In January of 1966 yet another B-52 crashed into its refueling tanker and spewed three hydrogen bombs onto the fishing village of Palomares, Spain. A fourth bomb dropped into the Mediterranean. TNT exploded in two of the bombs and spread plutonium over a square mile, forcing the U.S. to destroy local crops and remove tons of radioactive topsoil back to South Carolina for burial.
In all, the U.S. military admits to twenty-seven accidents involving nuclear weapons--which it terms "Broken Arrows." Independent critics charge the figure is more like 125.
If the handling of nuclear bombs has been less than perfect, so has their production. In 1963, for example, a fire at the AEC's Medina works in San Antonio touched off 120,000 tons of explosives and sent a uranium cloud into the environs of one of Texas's largest cities. At least two major explosions also ripped through the AEC's Burlington, Iowa, bomb-assembly plant. And the AEC's hydrogen-bomb fabrication plant at Pantex, Texas (near Amarillo), was severely damaged by a freak hailstorm, despite its supposed invulnerability to enemy attack.
Significant quantities of radiation have also leaked into the environment. In 1974 the operators of the huge Savannah River weapons facility at Aiken, South Carolina, accidentally released some 435,000 curies of radioactive tritium in a single day--the largest single tritium emission ever reported in the U.S. Studies of the local water system show serious contamination, and there are preliminary indications of an escalated cancer rate among people living near the plant.
Overall, the American nuclear weapons production program has been plagued with mismanagement, cost overruns, sloppy handling of radioactive materials, and low worker morale.
All of which may have found its ultimate expression at the Idaho Nuclear Engineering Laboratory (INEL), a vast outpost where research-and-development projects are conducted for the military, spent nuclear submarine fuel is recycled, and military radioactive wastes are stored.
INEL has a bleak history. In 1960 three technicians were killed there when a fuel rod blew out of a small test reactor, piercing the body of one and pinning him to the reactor containment, high above the core. The other two men were hopelessly contaminated, and pieces of their bodies had to be buried in lead caskets. An NRC official later indicated that the "accident" may have been caused deliberately by one of the technicians in a bizarre suicide-murder plot stemming from a love triangle at the plant. In subsequent years INEL has been plagued with sloppy handling of nuclear wastes. Concentrated uranium was accidentally dumped on a nearby road. Far more serious, INEL management from 1952 to 1970 deliberately dumped some sixteen billion gallons of liquid wastes into wells that feed directly into the water table below. Radioactive contamination has been found 7.5 miles away, angering local farmers and raising questions about the long-term fate of the huge Snake River Aquifer, a major underground water source for much of the American Northwest.
An even more severe accident, however, occurred during the 1978 World Series. With the Yankees leading the Dodgers 7-2, the plant supervisor was engrossed in the game on a portable TV set he had sneaked, against regulations, into the facility. Had he not been so involved in watching New York win yet another World Championship, he might have noticed that an abnormal buildup of radioactivity was occurring in a small uranium-processing column nearby. No one was checking the plant's monitoring devices. One recording chart had run out of paper two weeks earlier. Meanwhile the solution in the processing column was dangerously unbalanced. As the game was getting under way, uranium concentrations in the column were sixty times what they should have been.
Suddenly, at 8:45 P.M., high-radiation alarms began ringing around the plant. The panicked supervisor abandoned the Yankees. Operators in the control room fled to a sheltered area. Fortunately the column was brought under control. But official figures showed that at least eight thousand curies of radioactive iodine, krypton, and xenon had been released into the atmosphere, more than enough to threaten the health of anyone downwind.
The supervisor was later fired. An investigation of worker alienation and low morale at INEL concluded that the situation was bad, with no easy solutions available. As a health physicist who worked on the study told The Idaho Statesman: "It's a generic question that I have no answer for."
2. Clyde W. Burleson, The Day the Bomb Fell on America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 13. The Savannah Beach incident appears on p. 16.
3. David E. Kaplan, "Where the Bombs Are," New West, April 1981, p. 80.
4. Rapoport, Great American Bomb Machine, pp. 22-23.
5. Robert Alvarez, Report on the Savannah River Plant Study (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Policy Institute, 1980) (hereafter cited as Savannah River Study).
6. Stephen Hanauer, NRC, interview, June 1981.
7. High Country News, February 8, 1980, p. 10, see also, Progressive, October 1980, and J. T. Barraclough, et al., Hydrology of the Solid Waste Burial Ground, as Related to the Potential Migration of Radionuclides, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Open File Report #76-471 (Idaho Falls: U.S. Geological Survey, Water Resources Division, August 1981) (hereafter cited as Hydrology).
8. Idaho Statesman, April 25, April 26, and May 22, 1979. The bulk of the "World Series" story appears in the May 22 edition.
9. DOE, Radioactive Waste Management Information: 1978 Summary and Record-to-Date (Washington, D.C. July 1979), p. 12 (DOE, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Division, Idaho Operations Office, prepared by E.G. & G. Idaho).
10. Idaho Statesman, May 22, 1979.
Disaster at Rocky Flats
Two decades before that incident a devastating but little-known fire at Rocky Flats laced the Colorado winds with deadly plutonium.
Built in the early 1950s at a cost of $240 million, the huge factory produces plutonium triggers for hydrogen bombs. It sprawls at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, its tall stacks jutting out of the flatlands. Steady winds rush through the canyons and into those plains, often reaching blasts of up to eighty miles per hour--and quite often heading toward Denver, sixteen miles to the east/southeast.
In fact the air currents are so powerful that in the late 1970s the Department of Energy chose a patch of land just west of the plutonium plant as its prime national site for testing windmill components.
As a key link in the cold war rush to nuclear supremacy Rocky Flats was built under great secrecy. The handling of large quantities of plutonium at the plant was not made public until 1955, two years after it had opened. There was no public input into choosing the site. The military, said Dr. Tony Robbins, former director of the Colorado Department of Health, "made a decision to place a plant with a large quantity of plutonium and a lot of other trace elements pretty much within the Denver metropolitan area." The siting was "clearly a mistake." Approximately 600,000 people live within twenty miles of the plant.
A major component of the Rocky Flats operation is the glove box production line. In it lumps of plutonium are measured, machined, milled, and shaped to use in bomb triggers. The material is kept in airtight boxes and manipulated by workers from the outside who use rubber gloves fastened to the boxes, thus avoiding any contact with the toxic metal inside.
But plutonium can catch fire spontaneously in air. In the evening of September 11, 1957, some of the "skulls" on the glove box line of Room 180 in Building 771 ignited. The fire was found by two plant production men shortly after 10:00 P.M.
The area was designed to be fireproof. But it was soon a radioactive inferno. Firemen switched on ventilating fans, but that backfired, spreading flames to still more plutonium. They then sprayed carbon dioxide into the area. That also failed. Meanwhile the filters designed to trap plutonium escaping up the stacks caught fire. The shift captain and other observers reported a billowing black cloud pouring some 80 to 160 feet into the air above the 150-foot-high stack of Building 771.
As the crisis intensified, plant officials struggled to find a solution. They knew water would destroy millions of dollars' worth of complex equipment. They also knew the intense heat might flash the water into enough steam to blast into an explosion and send even more plutonium particles flying toward Denver. But when the carbon dioxide failed, there was no alternative. In the early hours of the morning water began pouring into the blaze. Fortunately it worked. The fire went dead roughly thirteen hours after it began.
The damage was extensive. Initial AEC reports contended that there was "no spread of radioactive contamination of any consequence." Seth Woodruff, manager of the Rocky Flats AEC office, told the local media that "possibly" some radiation had escaped. "But if so," he emphasized, "the spread was so slight it could not immediately be distinguished from radioactive background at the plant.
But--as at Three Mile Island twenty-two years later--there was no reliable equipment operable at the time to monitor the amount of radiation that actually went out the stacks. Not until a week after the fire were working gauges installed. Then, in a single day, emissions registered sixteen thousand times the permissible level--a full fifty years' worth of the allowable quota.
Some fourteen to twenty kilograms were estimated to have burned in the fire, enough to make at least two bombs equivalent to the one dropped on Nagasaki. And that may not have been the worst of it. According to a study based on figures from Dow Chemical, which operated Rocky Flats at the time, some thirteen grams of plutonium were routinely deposited daily on the first stage of filters in Building 771. According to government documents obtained in a lawsuit against the plant, the 620 filters in the building's main plenum had not been changed since they were installed four years before the fire. Thus a pair of local researchers theorized that as much as 250 kilograms of airborne plutonium could have gone out the stacks from the burning filters alone.
Such an enormous release of plutonium struck some in the Denver area as beyond plausibility. But a much lower estimate of 48.8 pounds of plutonium--one tenth of the 250-kilogram figure--was calculated as enough to administer each of the 1.4 million people in the Denver environs a radiation dose one million times the maximum permissible lung burden. "I find the high release estimates hard to believe," we were told by Dr. John Cobb of the University of Colorado Medical School. "But even if only one gram of plutonium escaped, as the plant operators say, that would be cause for concern." Nor was plutonium the fire's only by-product. The water used to extinguish it became infused with radioactivity. In this case some thirty thousand gallons of it escaped unfiltered, thus spreading its contamination into local streams and the water table.
Through the whole crisis there had been no warning to local schools, health departments, police, or elected officials that something extraordinary and dangerous was happening at Rocky Flats. There were no backup plans for evacuation, no notification to area farmers or ranchers to safeguard their health or that of their animals.
And though some of the buildings were heavily contaminated, bomb-trigger production was back under way within a few days. Over the next thirteen months, Rocky Flats's operators recorded twenty-one fires, explosions, spills of radioactive material, and contamination incidents inside the plant.
11. Rocky Flats Action Group, Local Hazard, Global Threat Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (Rocky Flats Action Group, 2239 E. Colfax, Denver, CO, 1977), p. 3 (hereafter cited as Local Hazard).
12. Carl Johnson, "Comments on the 1957 Fire at the Rocky Flats Plant, in Jefferson County, Colorado," report to the Conference on the Relation of Environmental Pollution to the Cancer Problem in Colorado, at the American Medical Center Cancer Research Center and Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, September 1980 (hereafter cited as "Comments"); and Rapoport, Great American Bomb Machine, pp. 27-28.
13. Denver Post, September 12, 1957.
15. For the 250-kilogram estimate, Johnson in "Comments" cites R. W. Woodward, "Plutonium Particulate Study in Booster System No. 3 (Building 771) Filter Plenum" (Golden, Colo.: The Rocky Flats Plant, January 27, 1971); and H. Holme and S. Chinn, "Pre-Trial Statement," Civil Action Nos. 75-M-1111, 75-M-1162, and 75-M-1296 (Denver: U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, 1978). See also, J. B. Owen, "Reviews of the Exhaust Air Filtering and Air Sampling, Building 771," unpublished manuscript, Rocky Flats Plant, Golden, Colorado, March 14, 1963.
16. Rocky Flats Action Group, Local Hazard, p. 3; see also, F. W. Krey and E. P. Hardy, Plutonium in Soil Around the Rocky Flats Plant (New York: AEC Health and Safety Library, 1970), p. 36; Carl Johnson, et al., "Plutonium Hazard in Respirable Dust on the Surface of Soil," Science, August 6, 1979, pp. 488-490; and Jack Anderson, "Colorado Plant Eyed as Radiation Source," Washington Post, March 25, 1979, p. D25.
17. John C. Cobb, interview, May 1981.
18. Rapoport, Great American Bomb Machine, p. 28.
A continent and an ocean away, in countryside that could hardly have been less like the flatland at the foot of the Rockies, Britain was also facing a disaster from bomb production. Amid the cold, deep lakes and lush farmlands of the English north country, fire struck the plutonium production reactor at Windscale in early October 1957--less than a month after the first fire at Rocky Flats. Windscale was designed to produce plutonium for bombs. Rocky Flats made such plutonium--once it was chemically processed--into triggers.
On October 7 uranium fuel pellets in the Windscale reactor caught fire. Attempts to quench them failed.
Though the plant was a military facility, word of the accident soon spread. The public was told the radiation releases were harmless, and there was no danger of an explosion. Both statements were false. Radiation monitors at the plant site and in the countryside showed high levels of contamination. As at Rocky Flats, carbon dioxide could not extinguish the fire.
On its fifth day plant officials prepared to use their last resort--water.
At 9:00 A.M. two plant technicians and a local fire chief dragged a hose to the top of the containment dome and aimed it at the flaming core within. Plant workers and firemen ducked behind steel barriers and braced themselves for the worst. As water surged through the hose, radioactive steam poured out the stacks and into the wind. There was no explosion. The core was soon flooded; danger of a meltdown was over.
But by Monday, October 14, a ban on the sale of milk had been enforced over a two-hundred-square-mile area. Thousands of gallons of contaminated milk were dumped into the Irish Sea. Hundreds of cows, goats, and sheep were confiscated, shot, and buried. Farmers who slaughtered their animals for meat were told to send the thyroid glands to the government for testing.
Workers at the nearby Calder Hall reactor were ordered to scrub down with stiff brushes to remove contamination from their skin. Coal miners working in nearby shafts were replaced with "fresh" workers who had not been exposed to the radiation that had filtered through the mine ventilation systems. And in London, three hundred miles away, radiation monitors noted significantly increased levels.
Despite the national emergency that had been proclaimed, British officials told the public it was unlikely "in the highest degree" that anyone had been harmed by the accident. But several months later British officials conceded to a United Nations conference at Geneva that nearly seven hundred curies of cesium and strontium had been released, plus twenty thousand curies of I-131. The admitted iodine dose represented more than fourteen hundred times the quantity American officials later claimed had been released during the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.
Like its ally across the Atlantic, the British government studiously avoided systematic follow-up studies on the health of area residents. When a local health officer named Frank Madge used a Geiger counter to confirm abnormal radiation levels in mosses and lichens, officials from the British Atomic Energy Authority actively discouraged publication of his findings.
A study of health data in downwind European countries later indicated a clear impact of the accident on infant-mortality rates. It was, Dr. Ernest Sternglass told us, "as if a small bomb had been detonated in northern Great Britain."
Eight years and eight days after the accident at Windscale--on October 15 1965--yet another major fire at Rocky Flats contaminated twenty-five workers with up to seventeen times the maximum permissible dose.
In 1968 a truck carrying contaminated soil to an off-site burial ground was found to be leaking, forcing plant operators to repave one mile of road. It was a modest measure at best, considering that the half-life of plutonium is more than twenty-four thousand years, while the "full-life" of asphalt paving is far less.
Then, on Sunday, May 11, 1969--at a time when little Kristen Haag was likely to be playing in her sandbox six miles downwind--plutonium stored in a cabinet at Rocky Flats ignited. The flames leapt into the glove boxes of Buildings 776 and 777. At 2:27 P.M., when the fire alarms sounded, the blaze was out of control.
According to veteran reporter Roger Rapoport, author of The Great American Bomb Machine: "When company firemen reached [Building] 776-777 they found tons of flammable radiation shielding feeding the blaze. The fire-fighters donned respirators and charged into the dense smoke." Once again plant officials hesitated to use water. But when the carbon dioxide supplies ran out--after ten minutes--they had no choice. At times the smoke billowed so thickly that firemen were "forced to crawl out along exit lines painted on the floor." After four hours the fire was under control. But isolated areas continued to burn through the night.
The AEC first estimated the damage at three million dollars. It soon proved to be more like forty-five million dollars, ranking it as the most expensive industrial fire in American history at that time. It would take two years and hundreds of regular and part-time employees to clean up the mess. One regular plant janitor refused to help in the cleanup for fear of radiation poisoning. He was fired.
Far from letting a major radioactive fire slow down bomb production, Rocky Flats operators continued full-speed construction of a seventy-four-million-dollar addition designed to increase plant capacity by half.
Nor were the fires the only source of contamination. Dow records showed that at least one thousand barrels of contaminated lathe oil were burned in the open air during their operation of the plant, sending unknown quantities of uranium into the air. And despite assurances to the public that no radioactive waste was being stored on site, more than fourteen hundred barrels of it were found there.
When AEC officials decided to move those barrels in the spring of 1970, a Dow report confirmed that "ten percent of the drums had holes apparently caused by rust and corrosion. . . . Many of the liquid drums developed leaks during handling or after exposure to air and sun."
One Dow study indicated that up to forty-two grams of plutonium had been carried off by winds blowing through the drum storage area.
Another Dow report conceded that normal plant operations were resulting in the daily release of millions of individual particles of plutonium, each of which could lodge in a human or animal lung, or be ingested with local-grown food and feed. Such particles are known to cause serious internal damage.
DOE monitoring records kept from 1970 to 1977 indicated that levels of airborne plutonium were higher in the Rocky Flats area than at any of fifty other stations around the U.S. Dust samples downwind showed plutonium concentrations 3,390 times what might be expected from fallout. Evidence also surfaced that the nearby town reservoir had been contaminated.
Constant mishaps at Rocky Flats led to a growing distrust among area residents. As early as 1969, in the wake of the fire that spring, a group of scientists from local industries and universities asked DOE and the AEC to monitor the soil downwind. Their request was refused.
So Dr. Edward Martell, a nuclear chemist working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, with considerable experience from the bomb-testing era, decided in the fall of 1969 to conduct some tests of his own. His findings confirmed some of the community's worst fears. Abnormal plutonium levels were clearly evident in soil to the east and southeast of the plant.
Martell quickly came under attack from plant supporters. But when the AEC did its own study of downwind soil, it also had to admit to significant contamination. "We find his results are accurate," conceded a ranking military spokesman. "We don't disagree with his new data. As far as measurements, sampling techniques, and knowledge of science, we think Martell is a very competent scientist." The AEC did, however, question Martell's health conclusions. "While it is true," they said, "that some plutonium is escaping from the plant, we don't believe it presents a significant health hazard to Denver."
Dr. Arthur Tamplin--at the time a leading AEC health researcher--strongly disagreed. The Martell study "shows about one trillion pure plutonium oxide particles have escaped from Rocky Flats," he warned. "These are very hot particles. You may only have to inhale 300 of them to double your risk of lung cancer." Tamplin calculated that if plutonium had been spread as Martell suggested, lung-cancer rates in Denver could rise, over time, 10 percent. An additional two thousand Coloradans could fall victim to Rocky Flats.
19. John G. Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit (New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1975), p. 86. The Windscale story is told on pp. 71-87.
20. Virginia Brodine, Radioactive Contamination (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975).
22. Ernest Sternglass, interview, October 1980. High cesium levels in people eating fish caught "in the path of the Windscale effluent" are noted in E. D. Williams, et al., "Whole Body Cesium-137 Levels in Man in Scotland, 1978-9," Health Physics Journal 40 (January 1981): 1-4. The contamination seems to be coming from ongoing operations at the Windscale reprocessing facility.
23. Rapoport, Great American Bomb Machine, pp. 31-36.
25. Ibid., p. 25.
26. S. E. Hammond, "Industrial-Type Operations as a Source of Environmental Plutonium" (Golden, Colo.: Dow Chemical Company, 1970).
27. Carl Johnson, "Cancer Incidence in an Area Contaminated with Radionuclides Near a Nuclear Installation" (report presented at a session sponsored by the Occupational Health and Safety, Environment, Epidemiology, and Radiological Health sections of the American Public Health Association at the 107th Annual Meeting, New York, November 9, 1979) (hereafter cited as "Cancer Incidence"). For a notation of contamination in the Broomfield Reservoir, see also Rocky Flats Action Group, Local Hazard, pp. 4-5.
28. Rapoport, Great American Bomb Machine, pp. 38-39.
A Grim Harvest
To Lloyd Mixon, Rocky Flats is an unwelcome newcomer. "I can walk out the back door twenty feet and see where I was born," he told us from his thirty-acre farm in Broomfield. "I was here a long time before that plant was." Six miles to the east, Mixon can see the tall stacks of the plutonium factory, with the winds blowing toward him "right down out of the canyon."
In 1975 he told a joint congressional-gubernatorial commission that bizarre problems had begun surfacing among his animals, problems in quantities he had never seen before. There was a calf born hairless with a body full of a watery substance and a liver "three times normal." There were pigs and fowl with mutations. There was another calf born dead with tissue that tested similar to cows exposed to radiation under experimental conditions.
Mixon later told the crew from Dark Circle that pigs had been born on his farm whose "nose and mouth [are] twisted, where they're not able to nurse." Some, he added, had been born with five toes instead of the normal four. Others had hips and ears badly deformed, "with eyes that were not like they're supposed to be."
"We've had chickens with no eyes," he added, "you break open the shell, they've got beaks like needles." Mixon continued, "We've had them where their legs have been so badly twisted and turned that they were unable to kick out of the shell. We had a chicken hatch with the brains right on top of his head."
State health inspectors told Mixon his problems stemmed from poor feed and hygiene. "They brought down what was supposed to be an expert, and he didn't even know how long it took for the eggs of different birds to hatch," said Mixon. But those birds that had allegedly been deformed because of poor food and hygiene had been kept in sanitary wire cages and fed commercial grain. "According to the ticket on the feed we buy, it has everything adequate in it. So it's caused from something else." Inbreeding was also suggested, but in one case "the female came out of Pennsylvania and the male came out of Texas. There's no way they could be related."
There were also charges of mismanagement. "I've had livestock ever since I've been three years old," Mixon said. "My people back years and years have had livestock."
Mixon's anger was reminiscent of the days when the AEC had scorned sheep farmers whose animals had died in bomb fallout. And his experiences matched those of a growing roster of farmers near nuclear facilities whose animals seemed to serve as a bellwether for bad news to come from radiation. In Pennsylvania, New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Colorado farmers have complained of bizarre deformities, reproductive problems, and unexplained deaths among their animals--problems that seem to have no other possible cause except nearby nuclear facilities. In nearly every case "experts" from state agriculture departments have discounted the claims, blaming other factors ranging from weather to bad feed to inbreeding to mismanagement.
But Lloyd Mixon blamed Rocky Flats. "We used to have several different varieties of pheasants," he told Dark Circle. "We got where they wouldn't produce. The eggs were infertile. So we just went out of it. Then we had some lambs born with the guts, or the insides hanging out. [Some would] be alive. We've had some born dead that way. We've had kid goats born with growths on them. . . ."
And, he told us, there've been "geese who would walk across the yard and all of a sudden, they'll stiffen up and die. There've been deformities in cats, and they've stopped reproducing the way they should. We've lost a couple of dogs with cancer."
The health department, Mixon added, won't release any data on other cases. But Mixon has received numerous calls from neighbors, including one who complained of eleven colts, all born in the same season, all born blind. And there was general agreement that wildlife had disappeared from the area. "You don't see a rabbit around here anymore," he said. "And people that try to raise them . . . they just stop reproducing." Mixon noted that many of his neighbors prefer to keep quiet about what is happening for fear of undercutting the value of their property and their produce.
One of his neighbors who did agree to talk with us--anonymously--told us she had lost so many colts to stillbirths and deformities that she went out of the horse-raising business altogether. "The animals aren't what they used to be and nobody's is getting any better," she said.
Unfortunately the problems do not seem to be limited to animals. In the late 1970s Dr. Carl Johnson began finding abnormal cancer rates among human beings downwind from Rocky Flats.
The stolid, conservative Dr. Johnson is former director of the Health Department of Jefferson County, which encompasses Rocky Flats. He is also an officer with the Army Reserve and maintains a top-secret "Q" clearance. As a public-health officer Johnson became disturbed by the constant malfunctioning of the nuclear industry and began his own studies to confirm or deny what the AEC and DOE were telling--and not telling--the public about Rocky Flats.
Dividing the downwind area into four zones and correcting for age, race, sex, and ethnicity, Johnson found male cancer rates in the zone closest to the plant to be 24 percent higher than in the zone farthest away. Intermediate zones showed excess rates of 15 percent and 8 percent. Female cancer rates were 10 percent higher in the near zone as opposed to the farthest one, with intermediate zones showing excesses of 5 percent and 4 percent. The excess cases for both sexes involved cancers of the lung and bronchus, upper respiratory tract, colon, rectum stomach, gonads, liver, thyroid, and brain as well as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.
There were other alarming statistics as well. Johnson's studies of people forty-five to sixty-four years of age in eight census tracts near the plant showed a doubled lung-cancer and leukemia death rate over subjects living in "relatively uncontaminated" zones. In essence Johnson found 491 excess cancer cases when the DOE said there would be less than one.
A separate study of a large suburban area near Rocky Flats found a congenital malformation rate of 14.5 per 1000 births as opposed to 10.4 per 1000 for the rest of the county, and 10.1 for the state overall.
Johnson's findings raised public awareness of Rocky Flats and helped fuel a movement to close the plant. His findings also put him in a difficult political position. Local real-estate interests began applying pressure to have Johnson fired from his job as Jefferson County health director. In May of 1981 they succeeded.
Meanwhile autopsy reports on workers at Rocky Flats showed plutonium concentrations in all organs of their bodies. And a study for the EPA by Dr. John C. Cobb of the University of Colorado School of Medicine indicated preliminary evidence of excess plutonium levels among other local human autopsy specimens plutonium that was traceable by its isotope-ratios to Rocky Flats. But in an interview Cobb warned us that plutonium might not necessarily be the chief culprit in any area health problems that might surface. "I'm not sure plutonium is the right thing to look for," he told us. "They also burned thousands of gallons of oil with uranium chips in it out there. A combination of the uranium in the cutting oil might be more important than the plutonium."
Whether it was uranium or plutonium, or both, Lloyd Mixon had been directly exposed. "I had some tumors taken off my chest," he told the Dark Circle crew. "I've had my thyroid taken out. I'm tired quite a bit of the time, more than what was usual, and [I've] got a numbness in my left side, my shoulders. They found a growth on my right arm between my elbow and my shoulder. . . . My daughter was born with a hole in her heart," he said. Mixon also noted that his neighbors complained of being perpetually overtired, numbness in their hands, and other inexplicable health problems.
There was also talk of "children being born retarded," he told us, "of them with mental problems."
Few of his neighbors, he said, would point an accusatory finger at Rocky Flats. But, he asked us, "if it isn't that place, what is it?"
For Rex Haag there wasn't much doubt. He had lived within six miles of the plutonium factory, and as a contractor had built another five dozen houses nearby "without the least bit of knowledge of that being a dangerous area."
After Kristen Haag's death from bone cancer, the body was cremated. At her father s request, her ashes were sent away for testing. When the results were slow in coming back, Johnson called the laboratory, where a technician told him "there was some problem because there appeared to be a large amount of plutonium 238" in the ashes.
And when the official report finally arrived months later, it cited what Johnson termed "rather high" levels of plutonium 238.
Rex Haag soon helped organize a business coalition to help close Rocky Flats. People justify the operation of the plant "in the name of national interest, or national security," he said. "But I wonder if the same people who are saying that, if it were their child, if they could actually sit there and say the same thing."
Lloyd Mixon had similar questions. "I've been hearing a lot more problems lately," he told us. "In a few years things are gonna get a lot worse."
29. Lloyd Mixon, "Statement," Hearings of Governor Lamm's Task Force on the Rocky Flats Plutonium Facility (Boulder, Colo.: April 1975); in Dark Circle, and interview, May 1981.
30. Anonymous, interview, April 1981.
31. Johnson, "Cancer Incidence"; and Carl Johnson, "Evaluation of Cancer Incidence for Anglos in the Period 1969-1971 in Areas of Census Tracts with Measured Concentrations of Plutonium Soil Contamination Downwind from the Rocky Flats Plant in the Denver Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area," 5th International Congress of the International Radiation Protection Association, Jerusalem, Israel, March 9-14, 1980.
32. John C. Cobb, et al., "Weapons Grade Plutonium in Humans Near Rocky Flats," abstract submitted for a poster session at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, January 1981; and Cobb, interview, April 1981.
33. Mixon in Dark Circle, and interview.
34. Haag in Dark Circle.
35. Johnson in Dark Circle, and interview, July 1981.
36. Haag in Dark Circle.
37. Mixon interview.
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