THE WORD “CHARNEL” derives from “carnal”—in or of the flesh. A charnel ground is a place where fleshly bodies are discarded after death, where vultures, jackals, ravens descend to feed upon the juicy raw meat, leaving bloodied severed limbs and bones strewn about. Heaps of bones pile up. The charnel ground is a cemetery, a highly visible boneyard. It is the ritual spot where tantric adepts perform the shamanic chod, or “cutting” practice (a meditation on one’s own dismembered body) that initiates the practitioner into the mysteries of death and birth. From a psychological point of view, the charnel ground is that state of mind in which birth and death occur simultaneously. It is a mental process of hope and desperation. You can’t ignore it. The realities of pain, sickness, grasping, death are demonstrated all the time. Hospitals are charnel grounds. The killing fields of Cambodia and Iraq are charnel grounds. The Pentagon is a god realm whose war mentality runs rampant over the charnel ground of the whole world. The stakes are so high, the weapons so deadly, that no corner of the planet, no form of life, is exempt.
Northwest of Denver, Colorado, and about ten miles south of Boulder, a deadly setup occupies a seventeen-mile perimeter of now-radioactive land. This specter of death is built upon the neurotic energies of passion, ignorance, and aggression, and manifests the fixation of one of the six Tibetan Buddhist realms of existence known as the “warring god realm.” Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was built on this psychology. Paranoia monitors this condition. Such a mind-set is enviably intelligent in its actions, in its skillful means. It even makes money. It will do anything to maintain its position. It will even create an hallucination of an enemy to maintain itself, perpetuating its aggression through a phantom fear. Rocky Flats remains toxic and perilous, despite the tide shifting toward closing down its nuclear trigger facilities. Nuclear waste will probably outlive our civilization.
ROCKY FLATS WAS BORN on March 23, 1951. It was the first and only place for the manufacture of plutonium triggers (called “pits”) for hydrogen bombs. Mass production of nuclear weapons was a new concept in 1951. The Los Alamos facility had served the research and production needs of U.S. nuclear development up until that time, but in order to concentrate fully on research, the Atomic Energy Commission developed a complex of facilities across the nation to build nuclear weapons. Rocky Flats was chosen over thirty-five other sites. The Atomic Energy Commission originally contracted with DowChemical Corporation, and this contract passed to Rockwell International in 1975. The Atomic Energy Commission handed the reins to the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Department of Energy replaced them in 1977. They’ve “managed”—or you could say “mismanaged”—the plant ever since. Its original cost was upwards of$250 million. U.S. tax payers now spend $450 million each year to operate the plant. Rockwell International’s work force grew to over 5,200 workers in February 1988. Over one hundred buildings occupy a site that began with what now seems like a modest twenty structures.
Rocky Flats has been the critical link in the nuclear weapons production chain. Until January 1992, it served two major purposes in the fabrication line: the manufacture of nuclear components for weapons and the reprocessing of obsolete and unreliable nuclear weapons. Rocky Flats imported plutonium, a metallic element, one of the heaviest known to man. Plutonium does not occur in nature, but is made by bombarding uranium with slow neutrons. Once created, it poses an ongoing threat to the health of many generations because it has a half-life of 24,000 years. The Department of Energy’s nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina, produced plutonium. Workers at these plants extracted plutonium from nuclear power-plant fuel rods, concentrated it, formed it into ten-pound “buttons” (charming term for such a lethal device), and shipped it to Rocky Flats. Here workers machined the raw plutonium into triggers and shipped the completed triggers on by truck to the Pantex nuclear-weapons facility in Amarillo, Texas, where they were fashioned into finished weapons. Albeit extraordinarily complex, this process, this potential charnel ground of unprecedented rage, was a “smooth” operation for many years, a deadly fait accompli. But was it really?
Despite serious protests—including continual bombardment from the Rocky Flats Truth Force, with the likes of political activist Daniel Ellsberg (who gained notoriety during the seventies for release of the Pentagon Papers) putting pressure on the madness-the process continued functioning and flourishing. The warring god mentality isn’t easily conquered. It moves on toward the next demonic form, knows no national boundaries, has no allegiance (it thinks it does, perhaps), even exists in us if we go deeply enough into our own minds.
Numerous horrific, yet hidden, mishaps occurred over the years at Rocky Flats: a major explosion and fire took place on September 11, 1957, when about forty pounds of plutonium burned in the blaze. No warning to local schools, neighboring cities, county commissioners, health agencies ensued. Seven days after the accident, reactive smokestack emissions were 16,000 times the radiation standard. Then an explosion in 1965 resulted in a worker’s fingers having to be amputated. Twenty plutonium fires broke out in the late sixties. Radioactive cesium-137 was found in soil samples near the plant up to thirty-one times background levels. A 1969 fire was the most expensive U.S. industrial accident of its time, costing taxpayers $45 million to clean up.
Plutonium emits alpha particles. Skin effectively blocks alpha radiation from plutonium sources outside the body. But when plutonium enters the body by means of inhalation, ingestion through food or drinking water, or through open wounds, the continuous emission of alpha particles can do extensive harm. Even though alpha particles only penetrate a small amount of tissue, they carry enough predator-energy to kill other cells they encounter and cause mutations that result in cancer. One study shows that plutonium is ten times more effective in causing chromosome aberrations than in causing lung cancer. The tendency of plutonium to concentrate in the gonads means that chromosomal damage can be passed to the next generation. The amount of radiation given off at Rocky Flats does not remain constant but increases with time, even after its plutonium trigger operations are shut down. It is exceedingly difficult for the human system to flush out plutonium. Half of the original mass will remain in the body a century after its entry. I sang in protest on Rocky Flats premises in 1976, “We’ll all be glowing for a quarter of a million years,” and, “Mega mega mega mega death bomb—enlighten!”
The U.S. nuclear arsenal today has over 20,000 nuclear weapons, with at least 10,000 of these being long-range strategic weapons designed for maximum accuracy and destructiveness. The Department of Energy plans to produce about 3,500 new nuclear weapons from fiscal year 1991 through fiscal year 1995. And these are proposed even after the Gulf crisis slaughter. Now that the Soviet Union has “broken down,” every country will want the bomb. The United States can be the chief seller and broker for this even “braver” new industry if it chooses.
When it looked as if Rocky Flats was set to reopen its plutonium processing operation in the fall of 1991 (although its safety was being fiercely contested at the time, especially after an FBI raid), I attended a town meeting—as mother, teacher, poet, citizen—where I voiced my concerns and quoted from my ten-year-old son Ambrose’s list for ways to guard plutonium, how in fact to cover it up: “Get some Indians to come back and make some adobe with ash to cover it up. Let’s cover plutonium with all the cigarettes in the world. Let’s cover it with linoleum, congoleum. Let’s cover plutonium with wood chips that beavers have made.” There was something sweet in his thinking that there could be a realistic way to bury the monster. I cited cancer statistics, the fact that Boulder has one of the highest incidences of breast cancer in the States and of prostate cancer in the state of Colorado. I invoked the opinions of reputable surgeons, including my own, who have said the truth about Rocky Flats, that its operations’ cancerous effects will emerge a decade from now, too late for the health of many local residents; that there is clear documentation of health risks and cancer statistics from former workers and residents in the area; that there are documentations and photographs of mutated animals born on nearby farms. Sheep with three legs and no hair. Just one example. I said all these things.
I was hissed and booed. The meeting was stacked with workers from the plant itself who made speeches justifying the reopening of the plutonium-operations wing as a deterrent to war, as an “operation of peace,” as needed more than ever after the war in the Middle East. There were testimonies about the plant providing a decent living for Americans who believed in god and country. That Rocky Flats was a symbol of American democracy and prowess and dignity. T4at Rocky Flats had helped America “win the cold war.” My mind was spinning. What could I do as a person working with words?
I WANT TO BE ABLE to crack the code language that separates us—me from the warmonger. I want to dance on the charnel ground like the nimble-footed chitapati skeletons in the tantric tradition as a warning and a transmutation. This is a practice of attention. I write songs to “call out” the demons. I study lists of tactical weapons. The poems and songs I write live inside the images of war and destruction on every level. They attempt to transmute—through language—the warring god realm. They also take me to the town meeting and to the edges of the mandala, which is a ring of fire on the one hand threatening all of space, and on the other burning up false mindviews which threaten annihilation of the whole planet. I conjure the holy fire, the sacred chandali in which one throws one’s past and all conceptions: god, mother-country, lover, Tomahawk cruise missiles, depth/strike bombs. Give up grasping, give up hope, then wake to the dangers of our fleshly bodies and body-planet. Shut down Rocky Flats. Shut down all the Rocky Flats the world over. Then guard them well. Don’t create more cancerous limbs to be eaten by jackals.
The Department of Energy deems the next years of dismantling Rocky Flats plutonium war-triggers operations a “transition period.” Literally “tons” of plutonium spread throughout several buildings must be consolidated into a smaller area, and then “cleaned up.” “Control, management, and removal of materials and wastes” is top priority according to the plan submitted July 31, 1992, to Congress from the DOE, which describes how the factory will be converted from a weapons-producing complex to an environmental cleanup and economic development project. “Materials” include radioactive substances, classified documents, tools, and so on. Under Rockwell’s management Rocky Flats had a cottage industry in one of its basements that turned out souvenirs for retiring employees, other mementos extolling nuclear power that were part of glad-handing deals. A purported million-dollar-a-year industry.
A MEMO LABELED “Ticking Timebombs” was written by R. J. Ballenger, manager of residuetreatment technology for EG&G Corporation, the successor to Rockwell at Rocky Flats, on September 24, 1992. It describes how substantial amounts of plutonium are still being stored in unstable condition or in potentially unsafe containers and are inadequately protected against fire. This memo comes nearly three years after the plant was shut down for environmental and safety problems. It should be noted here too that in the spring of 1992, Rockwell International pleaded guilty to five felonies and five misdemeanor violations of federal environmental law and agreed to pay a fine of$18.5 million, the second largest penalty ever assessed against a U.S. corporation, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Members of a special grand jury that heard evidence in the case say now that they had wanted to indict individual employees of Rockwell and the Department of Energy, but were rebuffed by federal prosecutors. They claim that the DOE, its contractors and employees perpetuated an “ongoing criminal enterprise” at the plant, by continuing to violate federal laws. The prosecutors and the lead FBI agent from the 1989 raid have been subpoenaed by an investigations sub committe of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, to review the Justice Department’s handling of the case.
Watching and waiting. Articulate the fear, it’s a given, it’s already happened, Rocky Flats, spurred on by Pentagon-directed paranoia, has already wreaked its havoc on the world. In the gap of the flames you might find an empty luminous nuclear-free world, humming with beautiful fierce sounds out of which you take your stand, make your poem. May all beings enjoy profound, brilliant glory.
Postscript: On January 4th, 1993, congressional investigators charged the Justice Department with negligence in their prosecution of Rockwell. The report also confirmed that the DOE (which owns Rocky Flats and employs Rockwell to administer it) lobbied the Justice Department for leniency in their handling of the case, in order to limit civil suits. Also, the New York Times reported that members of the grand jury who heard the case reassembled recently to petition President-elect Clinton to investigate the Justice Department’s handling of Rockwell. -Ed.
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