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Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear…

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (2012)

by Kristen Iversen

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A scary, rattling, sleep-disturbing read. Kristen Iversen intersperses a memoir of her childhood in Arvada, CO with an investigation/expose of the nearby Rocky Flats Plant, a nuclear weapons production facility operated by the Department of Energy beginning in the 1950s. The themes of secrecy and denial pervade the narrative -- both the personal (Iversen's father's alcoholism that destroyed the family, and the general code of the time not to discuss anything unpleasant) and the very public (massive contamination of the air, soil and water of the region by plutonium and other extremely toxic elements; gruesome cancers running through nearly every family in the area, all denied or denounced by the government: "It's all perfectly safe *big smily face*!!"). An extremely important read -- I would say for anyone who lives near Denver as I do, but for everyone, really, as there are super toxic nuclear weapons facilities all over the country and the world. Rocky Flats was raided by the FBI in 1989 -- one federal agency raiding another -- and their months-long investigation resulted in the plant ceasing operations, and a massive lawsuit (won, then overturned). Today, Rocky Flats is a park and wildlife refuge area open (most of it) for anyone to visit. Efforts to erect signage indicating that the site is massively contaminated have failed.

"We don't talk about plutonium. It's bad for business. It reminds us of what we don't want to acknowledge about ourselves. We built nuclear bombs, and poisoned ourselves in the process. Where does the fault lie? Atomic secrecy, the Cold War culture, bureaucratic indifference, corporate greed, a complacent citizenry, a failed democracy? What is a culture but a group of individuals acting on the basis of shared values?"
1 vote AMQS | Jun 8, 2014 |
This was a fascinating look at the Rocky Flats, Colorado plant that built the “triggers” for the atomic bomb, and produced a lot of plutonium waste that affected people’s health that lived around the plant. However according to the government everything is fine and no one should worry.

Kristen grew up next to the plant though neither of her parents worked at the plant, plenty of her friends’ parents did, plus she rode horse and played within close proximity to the plant never realizing it would affect her health years later. That is the scary part about this contamination your symptoms don’t show up immediately it takes decades in some people for the cancers to show up.

At first I was a little put off by her family story since neither of her parents worked at the plant so I didn’t really understand why there was so much about her fathers alcoholism but then she said ‘I couldn’t tell one story without the other because as big as Rocky Flats was in my growing up so was fathers alcoholism they went hand in hand in my memories.” (This is paraphrased) but it made me understand why the two stories needed to be told.

What I found most upsetting in reading this book was; the government cover-ups that went on for decades under the shroud of national security, the tons and tons of missing plutonium, the barrels of waste rusting and leaking into the ground, and that this place even after “clean-up” has no warning signs for people using the reclaimed land as a park. It also amazes me how stupid we were about the effects of plutonium that they built this plant 15 miles from the huge metropolis of Denver. And the lies that the DoE was checking on the levels out there and come to find out that the company that owns the plant send them a memo/report saying everything is fine and we have checked and it was all lies but was rubber stamped by the people that were supposed to be protecting the peoples’ health.

The sad part is Rocky Flats is in no way alone there are numerous plants around the country with these same problems and when you look into nuclear power plants you open up another scary can of worms about the waste from those too.

I think this and books like it are very important to read and research for yourself. I highly recommend this book.

4 stars ( )
  susiesharp | Apr 23, 2014 |
Full Body Burden is yet another in a long line of devastating books about the impacts of nuclear radiation. Rocky Flats, just a few miles northwest Denver, was the primary factory for making plutonium cores used in America's nuclear weapons arsenal. Over the years there were unethical safety measures, spilling many tons of plutonium into the local soil and water, where it has inevitably found its way into the lungs and brains of Colorado people, with devastating consequences. You couldn't pay me to live in Colorado, at least anywhere near this location. The world is loaded with spots like this, not only from radiation but chemical and biological. It makes for compelling who-done-it mysteries but is horrifying. This account is particularly good since it is by a victim who could relate the history of place from first-hand experience. ( )
1 vote Stbalbach | Apr 10, 2014 |
I was afraid that this book would be another anti-nuke book from a crazy lefty from Boulder, so I was completely amazed at what a great book it is! The author weaves her own memoir of growing up into the story and how secrets have a way of destroying everything around them. The author points out the lies and coverups by various government agencies as well as by the corporations hired to manage Rocky Flats. I don't take everything cited in the book as gospel but there is enough evidence to make even a cynic realize that the government does not put protecting its citizens at the top of the priority list. ( )
1 vote zmagic69 | Jun 7, 2013 |
A terrifying, true American horror story about growing up next to America's plutonium bomb factory, and bearing witness to the suffering caused by radioactive contamination always denied or downplayed government agencies and the corporate contractors. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
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I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science was firmly established. Some of the thoughts that came were so unattractive to me that I rejected them completely, for the old ideas die hard, especially when they are emotionallly as well as intellectually dear to one. It was pleasant to believe, for example, that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man - he might level the forests and dam the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were God's. - Rachel Carson
For my family: my siblings, Karin, Karma, and Kurt;
my father; and in loving memory of my mother.
Most of all, this book is for Sean and Nathan,
who have lived with it from the beginning.
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It's 1963 and I'm five.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 030795563X, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:12 -0400)

"A narrative report by a woman who grew up near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility describes the secrets that dominated her childhood, the strange cancers that afflicted her neighbors, her brief employment at Rocky Flats, and the efforts of residents to achieve legal justice." -- Publisher's description.… (more)

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