Toward the end of Kristen Iversen’s remarkable book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, she provides a detailed account of a severe plutonium fire that happened in Building 371 at Rocky Flats in May 2003 in which Rocky Flats firefighters put their lives at risk in order to protect innocent people both on and off the site. By the time of this fire, I had for a decade been attending Rocky Flats-oriented meetings at the rate of two or three per month as a member of a number of advisory and oversight bodies focused on trying to get a responsible cleanup at Rocky Flats. When the fire happened, those of us engaged closely in Rocky Flats matters were awaiting publication of the final legally-binding Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement by the Department of Energy and the cleanup regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Despite all this close attention to what was happening at Rocky Flats, I and others around me never heard that there was another serious plutonium fire at Rocky Flats in May 2003. No one from the federal and state agencies responsible for day-to-day activities at Rocky Flats, no one from Kaiser-Hill, the cleanup contractor, no one informed us of this fire.
It might as well have been 1957 when a plutonium fire at Rocky Flats resulted in the largest single release of highly toxic plutonium to the offsite environment and the public heard not a peep. Forty-six years later, not a peep.
On the evening of Kristen’s reading from her book at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, I asked a former Rocky Flats worker who happened to be present if he was aware of the May 2003 fire. He said he was not because he was not working in that area. He added that Kaiser-Hill’s contract allowed only so many fires or accidents per year for them to get full payment for their work. Otherwise there’d be deductions on what they were paid. He said he saw reports that mentioned a “thermal anomaly,” a term Kaiser-Hill employed to disguise what had really happened. He suspected that the May 2003 fire in 371 would have qualified as a “thermal anomaly.” Never mind that at least one of the firefighters was severely contaminated with plutonium. Never mind that the public may have been endangered.