History •  American West and Environmental Studies

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Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West

Len Ackland

Just as huge nuclear explosions result from small spheres of plutonium, the story of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver, Colorado is much larger than itself. It is about the Church family, who came West seeking gold in 1861, stayed to raise cattle, watched the federal government take a large piece of its land for the weapons plant in 1951--and now is busily developing real estate in the booming suburbs next to the contaminated plant site. It is about the government and private corporations that produced the deadliest devices in history for thirty-seven years, concealed problems behind the wall of national security secrecy, and came close to a Chernobyl-scale disaster during a 1969 fire. It is about plant managers who cut corners to maintain weapons production, workers who saw themselves as loyal Cold War soldiers, and citizen activists who challenged the plant's very existence. And it is about a community that profited from thousands of jobs and contracts but now faces long-term environmental and health risks.

Making a Real Killing examines the way Americans participated in building a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of destroying the human species. To read it is to learn some sobering lessons, including the fact that the democratic process lagged decades behind technological developments.

"As Americans reckon with the legacy of the Cold War, Making a Real Killing deserves a place at the center of our attention. Len Ackland's integrity and hard work remind us how crucial energetic journalism is for a successful democracy."--Patricia Nelson Limerick


Len Ackland directs the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a former Chicago Tribune reporter and former editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


"A hard-edged history of a center of Cold War death-dealing technology. . . . Ackland also serves up a useful summary of American nuclear policy in the Cold War era . . . . The scary workings of Rocky Flats were far from ordinary. So, too, is this fine book of reportage and history."


Kirkus Reviews

"Making a Real Killing is a model for making sense of the Cold War Atomic West. . . . It combines personal stories, excellent Cold War historical context, simplified technical explanations of complicated nuclear science, labor history, and corporate history into a compelling narrative. . . . Making a Real Killing should find its place not only alongside other recent atomic histories, but also next to the best books on understanding the American West of the last half-century."


Great Plains Quarterly

"[Ackland] skillfully weaves together individual experience with nuclear technology and politics. It's a model of investigation that should be read by all with concerns over the problems that accompany nuclear weapons and power."


Moab Times Independent, UT

6 x 9 in. 320 pages 26 halftones, 3 maps