Out in the Cold
They are America's Cold War veterans, who forged weapons from a fearsome energy source and bravely endured years of radiation for a country that pledged to take care of them. Instead, government loopholes and evasions are making sure those promises are never kept.
It was an odd set of instructions, to say the least. Reducing time in the glove boxes was nearly impossible. The massive metal-and-glass cubes—sometimes several hundred feet in length and 15 feet tall—housed vital components for the manufacture of bomb triggers. The boxes, which looked like giant space-age fish aquariums, held equipment such as furnaces, melt coils, crucibles, conveyor belts, and that vital, silver-grey ingredient, plutonium 239. The only way to make a plutonium trigger was to approach a glove box, shove your hands and arms into portholes that housed the giant lead-lined rubber gloves, lean against the glass, and start working. Metallurgical operators spent at least five hours of every eight-hour shift in the glove boxes—it was their job—melting plutonium at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, pouring it into ingots, placing molds on the conveyor belt. Shoot, Judy thought, no one lollygagged in the glove boxes. The message was clear: Work faster, produce more, and don't let radiation exposure hinder productivity. Judy's supervisors then made what she remembers as a "strong suggestion"—a passive order that undermined one of the fundamental principles of safety. As Judy recently said to me, "I was told to put lead tape over my dosimeter."
A job at the Flats came with plenty of risks. Hot plutonium could spontaneously combust upon contact with water, and plutonium shavings could do the same when exposed to air. Small fires in the process areas were a matter of course. Gloves would often spring pinhole-size leaks where they attached to the ports, emanating radiation for minutes or hours before alarms would sound. Workers on one shift might have forgotten to decontaminate their gloves after pulling them out of the boxes. Sometimes a glove would come right off its port, instantly "crapping up" a room, and the people in it. They'd strip out of their work clothes, rush to the showers, and "scrub down" with chemical solutions and sharp brushes that rubbed their skin raw. You can't see, smell, hear, or taste radiation. A potentially hazardous mistake could go undetected for hours, even days. To monitor their radiation exposure, Rocky Flats workers relied on at least one of three instruments: machine-mounted "alpha mats," which measure alpha particles; handheld Geiger counters operated by radiological control technicians (RCTs); and personal dosimeters.
A dosimeter checked for gamma rays and neutrons; covering a dosimeter with lead tape could cause the device to give an artificially low reading. But even when used correctly dosimeters weren't fully reliable. For one thing, they had to be in the direct path of radiation. What's more, dosimeters were fickle, fragile devices; when workers would leave them in the sun or on top of the TV at home, other forms of radiation—less dangerous forms—could often throw off the instrument's readings.
Some workers willfully ignored safety regulations at the Flats. Overtime hogs would do anything not to "dose out" and be reassigned to another building. Workers with a certain esprit de corps would take their chances in the name of national pride. Others figured they were being looked after. Judy liked the extra cash, but she trusted that when things got too hazardous, her government would do everything to keep her out of harm's way, especially considering the nature of her work. "We were acutely aware of how important our jobs were for the country," Judy told me one recent afternoon. "We felt that the country would protect us in return."
Workers at the Flats referred to each other as "brothers and sisters." They didn't just build bombs—they built secrets. In the name of national security, what happened at the Flats stayed at the Flats. Even intimate groups of coworkers kept a muzzle on work chatter. "You could play cards with the same bunch of guys for years and barely even know what they did," Judy said while we sat at her kitchen table. "You'd say, 'I'm a welder,' or 'He's a machinist'—but that's about as far as it went." Information, she explained, was disclosed on a need-to-know basis.
So Judy kept her mouth shut and her hands in the glove box. Still, every time she pressed her breasts against the glass, she couldn't ignore what she held at arm's length—a manmade element that could decimate entire nations. She was working with the same material that caused the incineration of nearly 70,000 people in Nagasaki. "You lean against the glove box glass," she said, "and within minutes you can feel the heat."