Mapping Plutonium (Hanford to Rocky Flats) – Philip J. Steele Gallery @ RMCAD, Denver, CO

“Mapping Plutonium (Hanford to Rocky Flats)” is an exhibition at The Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. The exhibit looks at the past and current situations at Rocky Flats. With October, 2015 marking the 10th anniversary of the [alleged] successful cleanup of the nuclear weapons plant and recent discoveries of amounts of plutonium and americium in excess of allowable standards, this exhibit offers my views on the continued problems at both Rocky Flats and Hanford*.

Mapping Plutonium (Hanford to Rocky Flats) focuses on issues relating to the United States development of nuclear weapons. It is about the secrecy; the environmental disasters; the toll of human health; the deceptions of the corporations and government; the nuclear waste; the denial; and the rapid expansion of new housing development around the Rocky Flats site. The exhibition contains art and artifacts. It is part fact and fiction.

“I am concerned with the truth and the myth, with secrets and public knowledge, with successes and failures, with achievements and disasters, with honesty and fantasy, with realities and fabrications and with denial and confirmation”.

As one enters the building there is a foyer area, left to the east gallery, right to the west gallery. Before entering each gallery there are sound recordings playing excerpts from oral history collections of both sites. The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant Collection is from the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Boulder Public Library. The Hanford Site Collection is from the “Voices of the Manhattan Project” is a joint project by the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society.

The first piece entering the east gallery is “Chinook Winds”. There are two pools of water each with a small pump and hose bib with a continual flow of water. Above one pool is a tattered, 5’ x 9’ American Flag. The label next to the flag reads:

The last flag to fly at the Rocky Flats Plant, taken down June 6, 1989
during the FBI raid that shut down the facility
{disclaimer, this is not the actual flag but what I imagine it would look like today}

There is a looped video about the other pool of water. The video is two clips overlaid, one is of a tractor plowing a field with a large amount of dust blowing and the other is an American Flag.

There are 5 photograph images in this area. These are a selection of the 50 images “mapping” both nuclear sites.

The back half of the east gallery is “903 AREA” containing two pieces. The first piece, “903 AREA” is a rusty barrel that has an atomic logo image. The barrel is buried in several obvious layers of soil. This represents the attempted burial and clean up of this site. 903 Area or Pad 903 had thousands of 55 gallon drums of waste stored outdoors and unprotected. The corroded barrels leaked radionuclides into the soil and water for many years.

Against the back wall of the east gallery is a large pool of water with four rusty 55 gallon drums with a radiation logo stenciled on the surface. In front of the pool is a area with two rabbits. This piece is titled: How to Explain Radiation Sickness to a Contaminated Rabbit
[stool for Joseph Beuys]
In 1969 Dow Chemical discovered contaminated rabbits in the 903 AREA. They conducted secret tests to confirm the contamination of the rabbits.

The west gallery has a “reading room” with many books and documents. While this area serves as a resource of information on the history and disasters of both sites, for me, it also represents the large amounts of information that makes it difficult to understand what has happened and what still exists.

Just beyond the reading room is the “Interactive Area”. This area has a working Geiger counter from a 1960s Civil Defense home shelter kit. One is able to use the wand and hear the sounds of the counter. There are 3 rocks containing uranium ore and chips of vintage red Fiestaware, all with low levels of radiation. One is pitchblende in metamorphic rock from Ralston Creek, Jefferson Co., Colorado, just down the road from the gallery. There were several uranium mines along the foothills surrounding Rocky Flats.

Here also is a small artifact, a Raschig Ring for Critically made of borosilicate glass. The rings are used to prevent an accidental criticality by absorbing neutrons. Used in overflow tanks at Rocky Flats that might contain enough Pu-239, U-235or U-233 to go critical.

On the back wall of the west gallery is a photograph of the current Rocky Flats site with new housing development visible surrounding the area. Next to the photo is a small piece with 10 bullets. This piece is titled: “Actinide Concentrations in Tissues from Cattle Grazing Near the Rocky Flats Plant”. It is for the 10 cows that were shot with a .243 caliber bullet on November 13, 1973 for this study.

Along the the west wall in the west gallery is a pool of water filled with “plutonium buttons”. These are made of plaster. This piece titled: “Women Creek Reservoir” is about the contamination of the water runoff that continues to contain excessive amounts of plutonium.

There are two large maps on the east wall of the west gallery. These maps of both sites is the residue of my mapping actions. I traveled around both sites, Rocky Flats and Hanford and used Google maps on my cell phone to locate exactly where I was. I would take a screen shot of each location. At each location I would pick up an object. It might be a sample of soil, water, plants, trash, etc… when possible I would put this in a bottle, hold it up wearing a green chemical glove and document this action. These images are combined in a diptych photograph. The bottles containing the artifacts or findings are mounted on the map in relation to the location they where found. Each item is tagged with identification, location and radiation level.

* In 1953, the Rocky Flats Plant began production of nuclear bomb components, manufacturing plutonium triggers used to assemble nuclear weapons. On June 6, 1989 the FBI raided Rocky Flats and found numerous violations of federal regulations including contamination of water and soil. In 1992, Rockwell was charged with environmental crimes including violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Clean Water Act. Rockwell pled guilty and paid an $18.5 million fine.

The Hanford Site (or Hanford Nuclear Reservation) was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. It is located in central Washington along the Columbia River. Hanford once had nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing complexes. Hanford produced the most of the plutonium that was used in the production at Rocky Flats and for most of the 60,000 nuclear weapons the U.S. produced. Hanford is currently the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States and is the focus of the nation's largest environmental cleanup.