Book review: ‘Fully Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats,’ by Kristen Iverson
January 16, 2014
Being a conspirator is draining and requires a lifetime of effort — just ask Kristen Iverson, author of "Fully Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." Iverson's new book is a carefully researched and crafted investigation of her own life growing up on the rolling plains of the apron of the Colorado foothills and downwind from the infamous Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. From her ominous opening chapter to the epilogue, Iverson lays out all the secrets, both of her family and of the bomb factory that loomed large over her childhood.
Extremely readable and meticulously researched, "Full Body Burden" details a modern horror story. But present in the pages, too, is a love story, a tale of beloved memories of childhood, a time that, for Iverson, was less than perfect but a childhood unflinchingly claimed and owned, from its deep dark corners to its simple, innocent moments.
Burdened by the family's unspoken efforts to conceal a father's drinking and a mother's denial, Iverson uses the pages of her book to craft parallels between the web of secrets constructed by her family and those perpetrated by the powerful and mysterious factory that hummed mere miles away during the latter part of the 20th century.
Residents of Colorado now know of the terrible consequences of Rocky Flats — or, if they don't, they should. A disturbing trail of lies and secrets surrounds the era of the nuclear bomb factory, and many questions and unknowns linger, and will undoubtedly fester long into the future, as the highly radioactive elements released will endure long after humans have vacated these lands.
The Cold War may be a thing of the past, but the legacy of Rocky Flats lives on in the form of an overwhelming arsenal of outdated nuclear weapons, toxic waste that will take lifetimes to clean up, illnesses that are just now manifesting and a sickened landscape, pristine to the eye but deadly in all other aspects. Designated as one of the nation's most dangerous locations and near the top of the country's list of SuperFund projects, Rocky Flats will remain, for generations to come, the consequence of a reckless and paranoid era.
Constructed in haste, Rocky Flats, from the outset, cut corners on safety, as maximum output became the paramount goal for the factory. A culture of denial rose up around the plant, perpetuated at all levels, even into the community. Safety precautions were side-stepped, as they slowed production, and the potential for a catastrophic nuclear reaction grew as time passed and the buildings aged and were overworked.
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Doubters of the safety of the nuclear facility were lambasted, Iverson recalls, and decades passed before the presence of a vocal opposition to the factory's proximity to a growing urban population gained attention. Even then, as though dismissing evidence can counter the realities of the situation, local families continued to insist that Rocky Flats was safe, some even perpetuating the myth that cleaning supplies were being manufactured.
Iverson takes the reader through time, shining a vivid light on the innocence and trusting nature of the 1950s, before the doubt and skepticism of the 1960s. In thrilling detail, Iverson relates the two nearly cataclysmic fires that occurred at Rocky Flats during those two decades, juxtaposing the events against the daily trials and tribulations of a young girl coming of age in a changing world.
At a time when kids were thrust out the door on a sunny day and told not to return until the sun set, the lure of the open fields and muddy swimming holes neighboring the guarded fence of Rocky Flats were extremely tempting. High winds pulled cold mountain air down from the nearby foothills, dispersing minuscule particles of plutonium across the meadows where the youngsters ran with their horses and raced with their dirt bikes.
Iverson recalls safety drills in school, where the students were told to crouch under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Little did they know the more real threat lay mere miles away, a threat that no desk could thwart.
Now, in an era when energy sources are cleaner and more diverse, and debates over the safety of fracking and nuclear power grow louder, Iverson's book takes on new meaning, providing clear examples of hindsight being 20/20 and the need for transparency and a high level of ethics when it comes to powering the modern world. Though the infamous 771 building of Rocky Flats no longer stands, the debate still rages between those calling for a "national sacrifice zone" and those who insist the lands are already safe enough to open to the public as a recreational space. But, Iverson warns, just don't dig too deeply into the muck of the streams and lakes or burrow too far into the ground like the prairie dogs do, and certainly don't question what became of the nearly 3,000 pounds of plutonium unaccounted for from Rocky Flat's heyday. Even now, the answers are unpleasant.
"Full Body Burden" is a powerful and honest analysis of those questions and answers, one that we would all do well to heed.
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