Incendiary Iconography | The Nuclear Legacy of the Cold War in America: Photographs from the Former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant and Related Waste Sites.

My largest single project, "Incendiary Iconography" is a documentary project in images and text addressing Cold War-era nuclear sites in the United States that are in the process of public reclamation and/or transformation under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program. As a photographer, I seek to record and interpret aspects of our society that I think warrant our attention, understanding, and memory.

The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant sat at the foot of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains overlooking the high plains of eastern Colorado. Boulder is ten miles to the north, Denver’s two million residents just 16 miles downwind and downstream to the east. The shallow mesa from which the atomic weapons plant derived its name was taken from the Church family in 1951, and since then the suburbs of Denver have extended to the border of what was a 25 square mile top-secret facility.

My youth was spent a few miles farther to the north, where we knew of the plant’s existence, even knew friends and neighbors – sworn to secrecy – who worked there, but knew nothing of it’s internal operations, its impact on worker’s and the public’s health and safety, or the long-term environmental damage that was taking place as it produced plutonium “pits,” for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. (A pit, or primary, is a plutonium fission bomb like the one dropped on Nagasaki, and is used to start the fusion reaction in a hydrogen bomb which has over 1000 times the power of a fission bomb. Plutonium is a man-made element which is highly toxic in addition to being radioactive.)

As is wont to happen when information is clouded in secrecy, stories surrounded the plant, stories that gathered dark and foreboding worries as they traveled like the tumbleweeds along the Front Range. Many of those worries were proven correct after a raid by investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General on June 6th, 1989, to investigate allegations of environmental crimes. Although thought to be a temporary halt to production, the investigation revealed the true conditions inside the plant, and these led to the eventual decision to tear down Rocky Flats.

The Department of Energy had hid for decades behind a culture of security and secrecy, arguing the plant was exempt from federal regulations. In 1995 the U.S. Department of Energy labeled Rocky Flats the most dangerous weapons plant in the nation because of the health and safety risks it posed to the plant workers and the surrounding area. Although the search warrant documents were released in 1989, the full text of the grand jury investigation and findings remains sealed, despite efforts by members of the gagged grand jury to make them public. The former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant site was officially designated a National Wildlife Refuge with the completion of decontamination and deconstruction activities in October 2005. The wildlife designation was chosen because it afforded the lowest level of cleanup standards. Debate continues among former workers and local citizens about the adequacy of the cleanup.  

Rocky Flats was the only nuclear pit facility in the U.S. The Department of Energy announced plans to develop a new hydrogen bomb on March 2, 2007. Site location for a new multi-billion dollar pit facility is currently underway without significant public debate about the need, or the long-term financial, environmental, and security costs of a revived nuclear weapons production program, which many believe, will start a new nuclear arms race.