In the dark shadows of Cold War nuclear weapons production at Rocky Flats, Colorado, a clan of people, among them Kristen Haag, suffered as martyrs to guarantee America’s position as a nuclear power house. Figures like Jesus Christ and Jeanne d’Arc are considered martyrs, people who suffered persecution and death for advocating their religious beliefs. However, as martyrdom is not limited to persecution based on religion, it also encompasses people like Socrates or John Brown at Harpers Ferry. So, although not killed for their religious beliefs, children like Kristen Haag, naïve to the detrimental powers of society, were supposed to grow up innocently, playing in peace and looking at the world with hopeful eyes. However, Haag and other children’s beliefs of a harmonious world were shattered as they were forced to battle cancer at a young age. Similarly, when former Rocky Flats plant worker Jacque Brever speaks up against the environmental injustice that takes place at the plant, she gives her life away. Plutonium trigger production at Rocky Flats from 1952 to 1989 cast a dark shadow over the surrounding communities. Cancer deaths became frequent and thus human sacrifice (unknowingly to the public) became commonplace.
As a consequence, while learning the turbulent history of Rocky Flats this fall, I often felt inclined to deem the world a hopeless place. However, I have come to realize that there indeed still is hope for humanity. This hope blossoms in the stories shared by Len Ackland, Kristen Iversen, Niels Schoenbeck, and the Candelas Glows activists. Moreover, artist Jeff Gipe has ensured immortalization of Rocky Flats victims through his work “Kristen”. In “Kristen”, Gipe reveals the injustice the Rocky Flats victims and the surrounding communities faced as both cancer victims, and their families, were caught in the tight grip of the plutonium soiled glove forever.
The only substantial scientific study conducted to prove that negative health effects were related to Rocky Flats, is the study by Dr. Carl Johnson, former director for the Jefferson County Health Department. Evidence from Johnson’s study showed that particularly cancer could develope after internal or external plutonium exposure. In the study, Johnson found 491 estimated cancer cases where the Energy Department only estimated one (Iversen 130). However, despite the numerous cancer incidents recorded by Johnson, controversy existed both in regards to exposure for the public and for workers at the plant. When visiting with the former Rocky Flats plant workers at Rocky Flats Cold War Museum on October 15, one of the former workers, who had been treated for cancer five times, and whose wife died of cancer, refuted Johnson’s study and strongly denied our class’ suggestion that plutonium was the source of said cancer incidents. Someone asked if the former workers ever were concerned about their safety while working at Rocky Flats. In response, all the men noted that they were never concerned for their safety while at the plant. To me, it was odd that the plant workers could refute a theory so vigorously, specifically when many of them, seemingly, had suffered as victims as well.
Moreover, also the story discussing site criteria for Rocky Flats fueled my pessimistic view of humanity. When Len Ackland visited our class, on November 7th, he discussed the peculiar decisions relating to the Rocky Flats site criteria. In his book, Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, Ackland notes that it was crucial that wind patterns crossing the plant, wherever it would be built, would not direct wind towards a large populated area (61). Yet, this detail was not only ignored, but was perhaps even intentional, as it turns out the engineering report with wind pattern analysis was from Stapleton Airport, on the other side of Denver (61). If Rocky Flats was built for the betterment of the nation, it is peculiar why one would have to manipulate site criteria. I look at this incident as proof that Rocky Flats fueled hopelessness for humanity. Whether someone knew they would be sacrificing people or not, today the decision cannot be reversed, and it continues to cost many lives.
11 year-old Kristen Haag died from plutonium exposure in 1979, never fully aware of what caused her cancer. Kristen, like many others, becomes a sacrifice for the nation’s safety. Seemingly, in the case of Rocky Flats, if the nation was to stand strong in a potential nuclear war against the Soviet Union, the safety of people had to be jeopardized and many had to be sacrificed. However, through Gipe’s work Kristen gains posthumous fame, as she was one of the many sacrificed. She becomes a reminder of the fatal consequences of plutonium exposure and of the negligent decisions of the American government that built a nuclear plant too close to a populated area.
“Kristen” is a complete, interactive, piece of work that engages the viewer to reflect on the threats associated with Rocky Flats. At first, “Kristen” (steel, steel wool, polymer clay, fluorescent lights, wood, paint) is taunting simply by inviting the audience to look into a narrow white box. Inside the box the viewer at first sees a glove, resembling one of the gloves used to handle plutonium at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant. The glove, meticulously shaped in steel wool, stands straight up in the box. The fingers on the glove are spread wide and static and seem as if they are ready to grasp around anything that comes its way. This image proves true as the plutonium related to the glove does indeed trap people, affecting anyone who is exposed to the dangerous element.
Gipe plays with juxtaposition, contrasting dark and light in the glove box. The walls are sterile and unpleasantly white, with two rows of white fluorescent lamps covering the box ceiling. The glove itself is dark in color. Pushing the light button outside box, and then letting it go after a few seconds, produces a neon-green fluorescent light inside the glove. This light shows the contour of the 11-year-old girl Kristen. She has her hands carefully folded in front of her; she has pigtails and she is wearing a dress.
The young, smiling, and innocent Kristen is contrasted with the sharp, serious, industrial connotation of the glove, the neon lights, and the glove material, steel wool. The confined glove box space, the sharp lines of the box, and the curve of the lines of the glove present a penetrating flow of energy – negative energy, which eventually will consume Kristen’s life and take her from this world. The surface texture of the white walls also diverges greatly from the prickly and raggedy surface of the steel wool. These elements certainly suggest that nothing about Rocky Flats is or feels comfortable.
The story of Kristen shows how one suffers as a victim to Rocky Flats, the cover-ups, and the plutonium contamination. In Full Body Burden, Iversen explains that Kristen Haag, just like other kids, swam in Standley Lake and rode horses “across the windswept fields” (46-47). Though kids often came home after a day outside with bumps and scrapes, one bump on Kristen’s knee did not heal (47). After a few weeks Kristen’s leg had been amputated; the bump on her knee was cancer. A couple of months later Kristen dies from cancer (Iversen 47). Suspecting plutonium contamination, the Haag family had Kristen’s ashes analyzed by three laboratories. However, out of the three labs only one reported “high levels of plutonium-239 in Kirsten’s ashes” (47). Oddly, the laboratory connected with Rockwell International, the current plant operator, returned inconclusive test results (47). Looking at this information I was stunned thinking about the injustice and lies related to Rocky Flats. Though Kristen’s parents decided they could not file a lawsuit against Rocky Flats, Kristen was not forgotten. Gipe has placed Kristen inside the glove to show that Rocky Flats and its plutonium production trapped her. Such a placement evokes strong emotions in the viewer as one notes the injustice of stripping an 11-year-old girl of her childhood. Reflecting on Gipe’s detailed decisions to accentuate human sacrifice and the power of destruction, I connected “Kristen” to Len Ackland and his powerful statement in the prologue of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. Here Ackland wonders why are “ . . . humans racing to create ever more sophisticated weapons able to destroy” themselves and most other species (X). Ackland’s question comments directly on my concern for a hopeless and a doomed society as it reveals that although humans are utterly intelligent they are not sophisticated enough to avoid destruction of their surroundings and thus also of themselves. This question shows the issues of national security posed by Rocky Flats. The Rocky Flats plant not only meant that America had weapons, thus power, to destroy other people and nations, but suddenly it also had the power to destroy its very own people, which it “unknowingly” did.
Nonetheless, Kristen is not the only one metaphorically trapped inside a glove box. The story of Jacque Brever reveals a disordered nuclear weapons plant, another subject fueling my view of hopelessness. Jacque noted that Building 771 at the plant was far from a “tidy lab with flasks and vials and workers in lab smocks” (Iversen 220). Workers looked the other way when things went wrong in production, when things were leaking, or were spilled. Managers simply strived to meet the production quotas (221). Jacque worked with the FBI after the raid, sharing her stories and observations from Rocky Flats. Before testified in court, she discovers that someone has poked holes in the gloves she used when handling plutonium. Co-workers confronted her later saying, “‘That’s what you get for making waves’” (230). Jacque suffered from americium and plutonium exposure and soon battled cancer. Though her whistle blowing proved ill fated, Jacque is a sign of hope. She later returned to Colorado, ashamed of the mess she was a part of at Rocky Flats, but after studying environmental policy and management she was determined to make a difference. Jacque is trapped by the glove box for life, and she has to battle cancer, simply because she was one of the ones who put the gloves on every day. Yet, she serves as a great reminder that justice can be made if one has the courage to speak up.
Still today, the danger of plutonium and its health effects remain as a great controversy. One of the great concerns, which Niels Schoenbeck, who visited our class multiple times in October, addressed often, is the large amount of plutonium waste still remaining in the Rocky Flats vicinity. It has been approximated that about 1 tonne of plutonium was released during the 40 years of production at Rocky Flats. These releases stem from the 1957 and 1969 fires, from the outside waste storage at the 903 Pad, from the incinerator burning waste, from the holding ponds, and from the spray irrigation systems (Schoenbeck). Consequently, with 1 tonne of plutonium unaccounted for, multiple hot areas on site, and locations off sites with high levels of radioactivity, the concern for redistribution of radioactive material remains great. Plutonium particles may spread by strong winds patterns from the two mountain canyons west of the plant, by burrowing animals on site, or as a result of runoff from flooding on site (Gabrieloff-Parish and Casse). In response to this concern, Candelas Glows activists Alesya Casse and Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish refuse to let the story of Rocky Flats fade. They protest and stir debate, and more importantly, they want to educate people. They believe that everyone has a right to know and ought to know about Rocky Flats, specifically as plutonium has a half-life 24,100 year and thus will continue to contaminate the area for millenniums. The Candelas Glows activists talk to potential homeowners at Candelas and to dog owners at Westminster Dog Park, just downwind from the plant. Casse and Gabrieloff-Parish are true examples of hope. They prove that although mistakes, cover-ups and lies might have dominated the Rocky Flats history until this point, as the story continues to evolve, everyone can help clean up mess that has been made.
So, although the turbulent history of Rocky Flats and the injustice suffered by people like Kristen and Jacque did overwhelm me with thoughts of despair, I walk away from the subject of Rocky Flats with a sense hope, fascinated by the passion expressed by people like Iversen, Schoenbeck, the Candelas Glows activists, and Gipe. These people have convinced me that dealing with social justice issues is important because anyone can make a difference, though a complicated web such as the Rocky Flats story might be discouraging. Regardless of what action one takes to continue to spread the story of Rocky Flats, Gipe ensures that the issue will never be forgotten. His timeless piece of Kristen Haag remains as a gripping reminder of what it means to be a child and a martyr, a sacrifice for the nation in the name of war and national security.
Ackland, Len. Making a real killing: Rocky Flats and the nuclear west. UNM Press, 2002.
Anonymous Former Colorado Resident. “Kristen Iversen.” Kristen Iversen, Rocky Flats Stories. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Casse Alesya, Gabrieloff-Parish Michelle. Candelas Glows. Rocky Flats activists’ presentation. Regis University. Denver, Colorado. October 2014.
Ciarlo, Dorothy Day. Oral History Project Discussion on Rocky Flats. In class presentations. Regis University. Denver, Colorado. October 2014.
Iversen, Kristen. Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.
Schoenbeck, Niels. Rocky Flats Lecture Series. In class presentations. Regis University. Denver, Colorado. October-November 2014.