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The Little A-Plant on the Prairie

Location: West side of the Westin Hotel, north of 104th Avenue and east of Westminster Boulevard.
Artist: Winsor Fireform Fabrication - Tumwater, Wash.
Year Installed: 2011.
How Acquired: Funded by the City of Westminster.
Comments: The history panel is located at the base of one of sixteen custom-designed light towers.

Little A-Plant on the Prairie History Panel

Panel text:

The Little A-Plant on the Prairie

The end of World War II ushered in the atomic age and the Cold War, with both the United States and Soviet Union locked in a race to build nuclear arms.  Sixteen miles northwest of downtown Denver, the Atomic Energy Commission constructed the Rocky Flats Atomic Plant upon the isolated open prairie.  The first buildings were erected there in 1951, and in 1952 the facility became operational.  Over the following decades, numerous additional buildings were constructed and the plant grew to the size of a small city.  By the late 1950s, more than 1,800 workers were employed there, a number that rose to more than 5,000 three decades later.  In 1972, the site was expanded when Congress authorized the purchase of 4,600 acres of open land around the plant to serve as a buffer zone.

Rocky Flats was active from 1952 to 1989 producing detonators, or “triggers,” for nuclear bombs.  The triggers, which utilized plutonium and other radioactive materials, initiated the fission reaction that released a bomb’s ferocious atomic energy when it was detonated.  During its years of production, two primary contractors managed the plant under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission: Dow Chemical (1951-1975) and Rockwell International (1975-1989).

Problems began to emerge from the site’s operations by the early 1970s, when evidence of radioactive contamination was found in area water bodies and topsoil.  Although waste containment and treatment processes were implemented, Rocky Flats continued to be a source of environmental concern.  In 1985, area landowners sued the plant for contamination problems.  With the anti-nuclear and environmental movements gaining momentum, protestors began gathering outside the facility’s gates.  Large protests between 1979 and 1983 drew crowds of 10,000 and more, along with speakers such as Sen. Patricia Schroeder and activist Daniel Ellsberg, and singers Peter Yarrow, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.  Area health departments claimed that the incidence of cancer among populations downwind from the plant was higher than among the general population.  Both local and state political leaders began to join the public clamor for the plant to be closed.

In 1989, following years of allegations that the plant was causing health problems among nearby urban residents, FBI and EPA agents raided the facility.  This raid eventually resulted in a permanent suspension of nuclear production and Rockwell was replaced by EG&G, which managed the site from 1990 through 1995.  Although nuclear trigger production halted as the Cold War came to an end, the facility required a massive cleanup effort.  Safety and security operations also remained necessary.  Environmental remediation was initially expected to take more than sixty years and require an investment of as much as $36 billion.  In 1993, the federal government announced that Rocky Flats was officially closed as a weapons production facility and would be solely engaged in environmental cleanup.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Rocky Flats was the site of one of the nation’s largest environmental cleanup efforts as the facility was decommissioned, buildings were demolished, and its grounds remediated.  In addition to the physical cleanup, more than a half million pieces of equipment and millions of classified documents had to be processed for storage or disposal.  The final stage of work at Rocky Flats was undertaken by Kaiser-Hill, which assumed responsibility for the site in 1995 and completed its cleanup by the end of 2005.

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