The Cold War was waged on many fronts. Korea. Cuba. Vietnam. Afghanistan. But the real war was fought in the form of a race to create an overwhelming arsenal of the most horrifying weapons ever known to man. The soldiers on the frontlines of that war were Coloradans like Judy Padilla and Tom Haverty, ordinary people who went to work every day at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Year after year, they put themselves in harm's way to build the bombs they were convinced would protect our nation.
Much has been written about the deplorable safety record at Rocky Flats, which operated just 16 miles northwest of Denver. By 1989, things had gotten so bad that the FBI raided the facility and discovered massive contamination. Sixty-one pounds of deadly plutonium lined the ventilation system's ducts. Radioactive waste leaked from supposedly safe storage containers. And the facility's record keeping was, to be polite, far from precise.
Very little of that was a surprise to folks like Judy and Tom. They knew they were doing dangerous work. Mistakes were made, but wars—even cold ones—are messy. As soldiers in the Cold War, they considered themselves patriots, and they believed the government they served would take care of them.
By 2000, the nation's sick and dying nuclear workers had become a problem the government couldn't ignore, and lawmakers pledged to address their needs. Congress passed a law acknowledging the government's failures to keep workers safe at all times, and vowed that weapons employees suffering from any of 22 cancers thought to be caused by long-term exposure to radiation would be eligible for medical benefits and a compensatory payment of $150,000. In announcing the program, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson promised, "We're reversing the decades-old practice of opposing worker claims and moving forward to do the right thing."
Those promises have proven to be the cruelest of deceptions.
5280 editor-at-large Mike Kessler has spent the last eight months listening to the workers' stories and unraveling the evasions the government has employed to avoid living up to its obligations. His story, "Out in the Cold," begins on page 134.
From dozens of interviews, Kessler has crafted a compelling picture of what everyday life was—and is—like for Rocky Flats workers. This is magazine journalism at its very best. When Judy describes pressing her body against thick glass and feeling the warmth from the plutonium behind it, you'll feel the heat on your own skin. And when Kessler shows the conflicts of interest between the public and private sectors—during weapons production, during the Rocky Flats clean up, and now as the government turns its back on dying workers—I'm sure you'll be filled with the same overwhelming sense of disgust that I am.
It's worth remembering Cold War vets like Tom and Judy as we think about what it really means to support the American men and women fighting in today's war. If our soldiers are not fighting for oil, they are certainly fighting because of it.
This is one more reason we can no longer ignore the effects of our energy consumption—issues such as independence from foreign oil and climate change are fast becoming our most vital challenges, which is why we're devoting the bulk of this issue of 5280 to the subject of energy. Blessed with a wealth of traditional and renewable energy resources, Colorado is, as former Senator Gary Hart writes in the essay that kicks off our package, "uniquely situated to do what must be done to ensure that future generations of young Americans will not fight Gulf Wars for someone else's oil."
We owe this to today's troops and we owe it to heroes like Tom and Judy.
Editor and Publisher