Feature

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.

November 2007

Judy Padilla was the last person you'd have pegged as a bomb builder. Five feet two inches tall with platinum blonde hair, she looked no more threatening than the pearl-white '75 Beetle that sat in the driveway of her Adams County home. Her idea of profanity was "shoot" and "booger." But Judy was stubborn, ambitious, and energetic, with the kind of piston-quick spirit that got her up every morning to ring-lead the family circus: She'd make breakfast and bag lunches for her three kids, feed the two lap dogs, and kiss her husband, Charlie, good-bye as he left for another morning shift on the factory floor at AT&T. Later, in the afternoon, Judy would leave for her own job. On her way out of the house, she'd reach for a small hook on the pantry door and grab a baseball-card-size instrument called a dosimeter.

 

It was 1984, Judy's second year on the job at the Rocky Flats Plant, the nuclear weapons facility just north of Golden on Highway 93. The communist threat was strong, or so we were told. Russia had troops in Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall stood tall. Production of nuclear weapons was in full swing, fueled by a defense budget that had swollen to nearly $300 billion.

A Coloradan since she was a teen, Judy was the daughter of an oilman who taught her to work hard and trust her government. She'd voted for Reagan once, and she'd do it again. Earning her keep at a nuclear weapons facility was a point of pride for Judy. Heaven forbid we'd ever need to use a nuclear weapon, but she was happy to be on the team that built it.

And she gladly took $11 an hour at Rocky Flats over the $7 an hour that AT&T had paid her to stand at a table braiding wires. As a metallurgical operator at Rocky Flats—one of only four women to perform such a task—she loved being a "blue-collar rat" at the only United States Department of Energy site that manufactured plutonium pits. Heavy as a medicine ball and barely larger than a hockey puck, the pits were the triggers that made the bombs go BOOM!

At the east entrance of the plant, Judy flashed her badge to the guard, aimed the car over a gentle rise, and drove into a low basin that revealed Rocky Flats. The 6,500-acre facility was a small city unto itself. At least 20,000 people had worked there since it was built in 1951; at any given time there could have been 5,000 employees on-site. Main Street bustled with signs of productivity, even on weekends. There was a firehouse, a garage, a medical center, and seven cafeterias. Men and women scurried about on foot and on bicycles and flatbed carts, weaving between clusters of administration trailers and warehouse-size buildings. The "Flats," as most workers called it, bore a striking resemblance to a thriving Hollywood back lot, except for the fact that so many buildings were decorated with the yellow and black "radioactive" symbol.

Buildings were grouped and numbered according to the work performed within them. Machining was in the 400 complex, for example. Paper pushers were in the 100 area. And radioactive material was typically "processed" in the 300 and 700 buildings; entering them required government "Q" clearance, the highest access granted to civilians. Judy worked in 707.

Through the metal detectors and into the locker room. Judy would change into her DOE-issued socks, underwear, white coveralls, and steel-toed boots. She'd report to her pre-shift meeting for what tended to be an unremarkable recitation of accidents that had occurred on the previous shift, production goals for the week, and new station assignments. But, on at least one morning that spring, as Judy recalls, superiors gave new orders: Stop lollygagging in the glove boxes. Hanging in the glove boxes increases your chances of exposure to ionizing radiation. Many of your radiation counts are getting close to the allowable maximum.

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