Starting with the Manhattan Project, the American nuclear weapons complex relied on extensive contracting relationships between the government and private industry. The midcentury’s largest corporations—including Monsanto, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, and Lockheed Martin—did not just supply parts to the military but also ran the research, engineering, assembly, mining, and extraction facilities at every stage of the production process. The mining and milling of uranium, refining of nuclear materials, machining of bomb components, and the assembly, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons, both in Colorado and around the world, was a highly profitable business—at least for the companies who received military contracts. While the places touched by these activities may now be abandoned, most of these companies continue to operate in some form.
Founded in 1917 as the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, the mining and chemical giant Union Carbide established a presence in Colorado with its 1928 purchase of a radium mine and mill in Montrose County, Colorado. At the time, radium was primarily an ingredient in luminous paint, which the military used for vehicle instrumentation. By the 1930s, radium’s health risk to workers became evident in anemias and bone cancer. As the market for radium collapsed, World War II’s secret Manhattan Project increased demand for uranium. Union Carbide shifted its Colorado operations to support weapons development and, later, nuclear power. The company’s nuclear division also operated the Manhattan Project’s K-25 and Y-12 uranium enrichment plants in Tennessee and assumed operation of the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which developed rockets, from the chemical giant Monsanto in 1947. Following a 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands, the company was the subject of many takeover attempts. Dow Chemical offered to purchase Union Carbide for $9 billion in 1999, and the company became a fully owned subsidiary of Dow in 2001.
Between 1941-1989, Union Carbide mined and processed uranium, vanadium, and tungsten in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—often with a largely Indigenous workforce. It operated both under its own name and through subsidiaries including Metals Reserve Corporation, Trace Elements Corporation, Foote Minerals, Union Carbide Nuclear, and Umetco Minerals. From the 1940s-1984, it managed a 680-acre uranium and vanadium site in Uravan, CO. Activities at the site and waste disposal practices led to significant soil and groundwater contamination, prompting the state of Colorado to sue the company to force a Superfund remediation process so extensive that the entire town was demolished. The site is still actively being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for radioactive materials, raffinate crystals, mill tailings, and heavy metals. Umetco Minerals Corporation, an environmental remediation-focused subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation, has operated the facility since 1984.
Dow Chemical was founded in 1897 in Midland, Michigan. Between 1952-1975 the company managed the Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility located near Denver, CO that produced plutonium detonators until 1989. During Dow’s management, several serious incidents occurred but were covered up, including a plutonium fire in 1957 that released radiation into the air and a 1969 fire that represented the nation’s most costly industrial accident at the time. The extent of the plutonium release and danger to human health was minimized by both Dow and the Atomic Energy Commission, although the later fire led local public health officials to begin independent monitoring of the surrounding areas. For the first time, the public became aware of contamination from Rocky Flats, and the plant—which Dow handed over to Rockwell in 1975—became a site of frequent protests until its closure.
Following the FBI raid of Rocky Flats in 1989, more than ten thousand nearby property owners filed a class action lawsuit against Dow Chemical and Rockwell alleging that air contamination from the plant caused harm to human health. In 2006, both companies were ordered to pay combined damages of $353 million. In 2010 the companies appealed the decision, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the previous ruling, citing that the plaintiffs failed to prove a “nuclear incident” took place, which under federal law limits operators’ liability. However, Dow, Rockwell, and the plaintiffs settled in 2016 for a total of $375 million. Dow expected most of its $131.25 million share to be ultimately paid by the Department of Energy.
Rocky Flats was far from Dow’s only environmentally damaging operation. For decades, Dow opposed the banning of the hazardous herbicide 2,4,5-T because it was the primary ingredient in the company’s lucrative product, Agent Orange. This chemical defoliant was used by the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, and Dow’s involvement made the company a frequent target for activists in the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning in the early 1980s, Dow ran a coordinated campaign to minimize or mislead the public about the health risks of dioxin, which had severely contaminated the waterways near its primary manufacturing plant in Michigan. A cleanup plan was only agreed to in 2009 and settled with the EPA for $2.5 million in penalties for repeated violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Rockwell International was a major U.S. defense and aerospace corporation that succeeded Dow Chemical as the contractor responsible for managing the Rocky Flats plant. It remained in this role through the FBI raid in 1989 that led to the ultimate closure of Rocky Flats. In addition to operating the plutonium production plant, Rockwell companies also produced nuclear missiles, the B-1 bomber, the space shuttle orbiter, and the first generation of GPS technologies.
The end of the Cold War led to the slow break-up of Rockwell, as the company began to sell off its space and military divisions. After the Rocky Flats raid, a federal grand jury investigated Rockwell for violations of the Clean Water Act and federal toxic waste regulations and ultimately found them to be involved in an ongoing criminal enterprise. No criminal indictments were pursued, and Rockwell settled out of court in 1992 for $18.5 million. The company sold most of its defense and aerospace to Boeing in 1996 and ultimately split into two publicly-traded companies, the successor Rockwell Automation and the spin-off Rockwell Collins, in 2001.
Massachusetts-based Raytheon Technologies (formerly Raytheon Company) is a major American aerospace and defense conglomerate that got its start as an appliance and electronics company established in Cambridge in 1922. Raytheon contributed to defense work in World War II and quickly developed leadership in radar technologies that continues to this day. Raytheon’s evolution toward missiles began with its involvement in the Lark Project, a 1945 initiative to produce some of the first solid-fuel boosted, liquid-fueled rocket surface-to-air missiles. Raytheon further developed the technology in order to create velocity-gated continuous wave doppler radar for guided missile target seekers, leading to the first successful United States surface-to-air missile interception of a flying target in January 1950. These early contracts set up Raytheon to become the fifth largest military contractor in the world today, with over 67,000 employees globally—30,000 of them working in the company’s missile and defense subsidiary and 35,000 in Raytheon Intelligence & Space. In 2020, the Air Force selected Raytheon to build the long-range standoff missile, a new air-launched nuclear missile developed as part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to expand and update the U.S. nuclear triad. In Colorado, Raytheon’s operations are closely linked to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, which coordinates missile defense and response for the U.S. and Canada.
Lockheed Martin is the world’s leading aerospace, defense, and arms corporation. It is the single largest recipient of U.S. government and military contracts, representing in 2018 about 10% of the Pentagon’s entire annual budget. The company can be traced back to California aircraft giant Lockheed (established in 1926), the Baltimore-based aerospace and missile-focused Glenn L. Martin Company (established 1912), and Chicago-based chemical company the American-Marrietta Corporation (founded 1913).
In the mid-1950s, one of Lockheed Martin’s predecessor companies, Glenn L. Martin, received a contract from the U.S. Air Force to begin work on a second generation of intercontinental ballistic missile to be dubbed the Titan program. Air Force Plant #79 (also known as the Waterton Canyon Facility) in Jefferson County, Colorado was to house the project. The first generation Titan I ICBMs—including 18 located at Lowry Air Force Base near Denver—were operational for only two years, while a second generation remained online until the late 1980s. The Titan missiles were also used in the space program. The Waterton Canyon site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities, or Superfund, List in 1989 due to the contamination of soil and groundwater with hazardous chemicals. Lockheed Martin continues to operate an extensive campus at Waterton Canyon specializing in manufacturing space satellites.
The expansion of American military research, development, and manufacturing that began during World War II would have been impossible without subcontracting to hundreds of manufacturers, both large and small. Many of these companies grew on government contracts to become among the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Their operations have been associated with many transformational military-to-consumer technologies of the last half-century, as well as some of the most serious industrial accidents in history. However, decades of mergers, acquisitions, and spin-offs—along with the secretive nature of military contracting—can make it difficult for communities affected to establish responsibility and accountability. Even in the most egregious cases, a given company’s cumulative profits almost always vastly exceed any sanctions or penalties for the environmental and human health consequences of these activities.
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