Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

Iversen, Kristen

Published by Crown, 2012
ISBN 10: 030795563X / ISBN 13: 9780307955630
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Full Body Burden is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated "the most contaminated site in America." It's the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and--unknown to those who lived there--tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.

It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets--both family and government. Her father's hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed)--best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.

But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 Mother's Day fire, in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited and--despite the desperate efforts of firefighters--came perilously close to a "criticality," the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called "incidents."

And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism--a detailed and shocking account of the government's sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents' vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers--from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job.

Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.

Review: A Q&A with the Author
Why did you write the book?
Rocky Flats was the big secret of my childhood. No one knew what they did at the plant; the rumor in the neighborhood was that they made household cleaning products. We knew nothing about radioactive and toxic contamination. My childhood was also shadowed by the secrecy surrounding my father’s alcoholism. My family was very close and loving but also troubled. I wrote the book to learn what really happened at Rocky Flats, to learn everything I could about plutonium pits and nuclear weapons and the crucial role the plant played during and after the Cold War. I also wanted to understand my family and the broader context of what it meant to grow up during the seventies. Secrecy at the level of the community and at the level of family turned out to be a central theme in the book.

One of the great ironies of my life is that I spent several years as a travel writer in Europe, looking for good stories to write about, and the biggest story turned out to be—quite literally—in my own backyard. My family and our neighbors were “Cold War warriors,” as the plutonium workers themselves were called, but no one told us.

How is Rocky Flats a global issue?
The 2011 accident at Fukushima, following the tsunami, reminded the world in a terrible way that we cannot ignore the threat of radioactive contamination, whether it comes from nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons sites. The world has experienced many nuclear disasters in recent years, including accidents at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, the Mayak facility in Russia (the “sister” plant to Rocky Flats), Rocky Flats in Colorado, and other former nuclear weapons sites around the United States such as Hanford and Fernald. The health effects of short-term, high-level radioactive contamination are fairly well known. What are the health costs of long-term, low-level radioactive exposure? Scientists and physicists continue to debate the topic, but one fact is for sure: there is no safe level of exposure to plutonium. One millionth of a gram, particularly if it is inhaled, can cause cancer.

Rocky Flats happened in my backyard, but in a sense it is happening in everyone’s back yard. Many of us live in close proximity to former nuclear weapons sites or nuclear power plants with inadequate safety provisions. And, at a time when we are supposed to be decreasing our nuclear arsenal, the U.S. government is talking about producing nuclear triggers again. We need to pay attention.

Was it hard to write so intimately about your family?
I believe that the most powerful way to tell a story is through personal, everyday experience. Every person on the planet has a story that is both ordinary and extraordinary. My siblings and I swam in the lake behind our house and rode our horses in the fields. We had, in many ways, a blessed childhood. And this kind of experience is one that many readers will share. What makes our story unique is that it connects, in ways that we never anticipated, to a broader historical and political narrative. The story of the 1969 fire at Rocky Flats—which very nearly destroyed the entire metro Denver area—is all the more powerful when you realize that my family was having a very pleasant Mother’s Day brunch at a nearby restaurant. We had no idea what was going on—and neither did other Coloradoans. It was only by including the experiences of me, my family, my neighbors, and my coworkers at Rocky Flats that I could truly bring the story to life. It was indeed a challenge to write intimately about things that, as a family, we were never supposed to discuss, including my father’s drinking. And yet the end result was a tremendous sense of clarity and understanding.

What surprised you most during your research for the book?
I was surprised, and continue to be surprised, by the secrecy surrounding this very dramatic story. What happened at Rocky Flats, during the Cold War and up to the present moment, is crucially important not only to Colorado but to the entire country. But so much of the story has been hidden over the years, and now it is in danger of being forgotten. Recently I stayed at a hotel just a few miles from the Rocky Flats site, and the young man at the front desk had grown up in Colorado. He’d never heard of Rocky Flats. Of those people who do know the story--or part of it--many believe that Rocky Flats is old history, that it’s irrelevant and insignificant. They believe the land is safe and the story is over. After all, you can’t see or smell plutonium.

Yet we cannot forget the story of Rocky Flats. The effects will linger far into the future. There were many other surprises too. During my research, I was shocked to discover how many tons of MUF, or “Missing Unaccounted For” plutonium, was missing, even to the present day. And the history of the 1989 FBI raid on Rocky Flats is fascinating. I believe it’s the only time in the history of the United States that two government agencies--the FBI and the EPA--have raided another agency, the Department of Energy.

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear ...
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: 2012
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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