Andrew Cohen: A September 11th Catastrophe You've Probably Never Heard About
Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and legal analyst for 60 Minutes. He is also chief analyst and legal editor for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal analysts and commentators.
On September 11, 1957, 55 years ago tomorrow, a national catastrophe was unfolding, one you likely have never heard about before. At the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver, inside the plutonium processing building, a fire had started in an area designed to be fireproof. Soon it was roaring over, through, and around the carefully constricted plutonium as one Cold-War-era safety feature after another failed. The roof of the building, the building itself, were threatened. And plumes of radioactive smoke went straight up into Colorado's late summer night air. High into the air, if you believe the witnesses.
For 13 hours on the night of the 11th, into the morning the next day, the fire raged inside that building, until firefighters put it out (with water -- exposing themselves, and perhaps the entire front range of Colorado, to an even greater risk of radiation). When it was over, Energy Department officials, and the Dow Chemical officials who then ran the facility, did not share the extent of the catastrophe, or the radiation danger, with local officials or the media. For years, no one really knew how bad it had been, what it meant for those exposed to the radiation, or how such a dangerous event could be prevented in the future.
For some, the story of Rocky Flats, one of the most disgraceful episodes in the annals of America's interaction with the atom, is ancient history. For others, it's a current event. For Kristen Iversen, it's a burden she lives with, physically and psychologically, every day of her life. Iversen is the author of a new book on the subject -- Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, a striking tale of innocence in a time and a place of great danger. It's the story of an American family buying into the myth of nuclear safety, a story of an abuse of trust for which our government still hasn't fully atoned....
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