"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.Read more...
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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.
- ISBN-13: 9780307955630
- ISBN-10: 030795563X
- Publisher: Crown Publishing Group (NY)
- Publish Date: June 2012
- Page Count: 400
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-14
- Reviewer: Staff
In this powerful work of research and personal testimony, Iversen (Molly Brown), director of the M.F.A. creative writing program at the University of Memphis. chronicles the story of America’s willfully blinkered relationship to the nuclear weapons industry through the haunting experience of her own family in Colorado. Moving to the spanking new subdivision of Denver called Bridledale in 1969, an area hugely expanding due to the growing industries nearby, Iversen’s middle-class family of four children, lawyer dad, and homemaker mom believed they had secured the American dream, hardly questioning that Dow Chemical was making anything more than scrubbing bubbles in the top-secret Rocky Flats foundry. Built in the early 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to smelt the plutonium “triggers” for the nuclear bombs necessary to deter the Soviet Union during the cold war, Rocky Flats had already suffered a major plutonium fire in 1957, the extent of radiation damage swiftly covered up, before a similar fire on Mother’s Day 1969 proved the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, spreading unknown quantities of radiation in the soil and water and costing .7 million to clean up—also carefully covered up in the name of national security. Meanwhile, residents began to get sick, especially the children who ran wild over the contaminated land; animals grew sterile; protestors started to arouse concern; and studies were published, culminating in a FBI raid of the facility in 1989. Yet the grief was ongoing, as Iversen renders in her masterly use of the present tense, conveying tremendous suspense and impressive control of her material. Agent: Ellen Levine. (July)
A nuclear childhood
On its surface, Kristen Iversen’s childhood in suburban Denver was idyllic. She and her three younger siblings had horses to ride, a local lake and a neighborhood filled with kids.
But just under the surface lurked dangers that Iversen doesn’t fully understand until she is much older. Her Scandinavian parents believe in a stiff upper lip. They rarely acknowledge Iversen’s father’s alcoholism, even after he flips the family car on the way to a horse show. Only after years of chronic pain does Iversen discover the incident broke her neck: Her parents never took her to a doctor after the wreck.
Perhaps even more sinister than the Iversen clan’s demons is the threat just upwind from their home: Rocky Flats. Most local families believe Rocky Flats is a factory for household cleaning supplies. The truth is that Rocky Flats is a U.S. Department of Energy facility churning out plutonium “pits” for the thousands of nuclear weapons assembled during the Cold War.
Even a tiny speck of plutonium ingested in a human body can lead to cancer, immune disorders and other long-term health problems. Unbeknownst to those who live downwind from Rocky Flats (and, indeed, to many of the thousands of Rocky Flats employees), the plant is careless in both producing the plutonium pits and handling the resulting radioactive waste. Thousands of leaking barrels of waste seep into the soil and drinking water. Regular fires at the plant—some intentional—release plutonium particles and other toxic material into the air. Yet from the 1950s through the 1970s, public health officials insist Denver and surrounding communities are safe, even as children and adults in Iversen’s neighborhood develop testicular cancer, brain tumors and other health issues.
With meticulous reporting and a clear eye for details, Iversen has crafted a chilling, brilliantly written cautionary tale about the dangers of blind trust. Through interviews, sifting through thousands of records (some remain sealed) and even a stint as a Rocky Flats receptionist, she uncovers decades of governmental deception. Full Body Burden is both an engrossing memoir and a powerful piece of investigative journalism.