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Picture a 1960s American suburb, built next to waving tallgrass prairie with the Rocky Mountains soaring in the background. The sky is “turquoise and teal in summer, fiery red at sunset, iron gray when snow is on the way.” Families pursuing the American dream moved here, where their children could roam free on horseback, along irrigation ditches and lakeside, long before the Denver metropolis extended all the way to Arvada.
Author Kristen Iversen grew up here, just 80 miles up the road from Colorado Springs, and immediately downwind of Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant where for 37 years the U.S. government manufactured plutonium triggers, “the heart of every nuclear weapon made in America,” some “seventy thousand at a cost of nearly $4 million apiece.”
“Each one,” says Iversen in her stunning new memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, (Crown: 2012), “contains enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.” And the creation of each gram of plutonium yielded tons of radioactive toxic waste, “virtually all of which remains with us to the present day.”
Ironically and tragically, no one in the community knew during those years what went on at Rocky Flats, least of all those most vulnerable to the health effects of radioactive waste, children like Iversen, her brother and sisters, and their neighbors. Kristen Iversen’s mother was under the impression that the plant next door was in the business of manufacturing household cleaning products.
Iversen says she has been astonished to discover, while touring to promote the book, that “most people don’t know about Rocky Flats,” including those who live in Colorado.
Full Body Burden is packed with stories of childhood leukemias, brain tumors, and other cancers found in excess among suburbanites around Rocky Flats, the same diseases found after World War II among survivors of U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in keeping with the book’s central theme — secrecy and the costs of covering up the truth — a study confirming those findings by Dr. Carl Johnson, Jefferson County health director during the 1970s, was quickly discredited by the U.S. government as were many others in subsequent public health studies.
At the heart of Full Body Burden is secrecy: the things we don’t talk about both in our private and family lives, and in the public arena where organized campaigns of misinformation and threats of repercussions demand silence. At home, the tight-knit Iversens don’t speak about their father’s increasingly volatile alcoholism. And just beyond the No Trespassing signs bordering Rocky Flats and the neighborhood, truths about fires and leakage and fallout and life-threatening accidents are covered up in double-speak and outright lies.
“It seemed to me from the very beginning when I began writing the book, that there was a connection between these two narratives,” Iversen says, “between the health costs and emotional costs of maintaining that kind of repression and secrecy.”
The book covers campaigns to shut down Rocky Flats once its real dangers became known, including protest activities and arrests of Colorado Springs activists like Mary Sprunger-Froese, who is named in the book.
“People like Mary are so extraordinary,” says Iversen. “They were putting their lives on the line. They went to court and said to the judge: ‘Look, this is a bomb factory.’ Nobody else was saying it that way at that time.”
Following a 1989 FBI raid on Rocky Flats and a barrage of evidence alleging environmental lawbreaking at the plant, production of plutonium triggers ceased. In 1994, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was renamed the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, and in subsequent decades, nearly 4,000 acres at the site have been designated Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, to the tune of continual controversy. Fifteen-hundred acres at the plant site remain so contaminated that they will never be safe for human exposure. Meanwhile, the wildlife refuge has yet to be opened to the public.
Iversen’s book offers a great deal of clarity on this surreal and shocking chapter, but the story is far from over. Last year, following an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 on the coast of Japan, three nuclear reactors melted down at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, “leading to extensive radioactive contamination on the level of the Chernobyl disaster.”
Three days ago, an estimated one-hundred-seventy-thousand Japanese protesters gathered in Tokyo to urge the government not to reopen nuclear power plants shut down after the tsunami.
This dialogue and dialogue surrounding her book are encouraging to Iversen. “Maybe with Fukushima and some of the problems with our aging nuclear power plants, people are beginning to realize, more, the risks involved,” she says. “Before, people weren’t able to hear it.”
Here is a listing of information and upcoming events related to Full Body Burden:
• Sat., Aug. 4 at 11 a.m., Kristen Iversen will speak at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more, go HERE.
• Sun. Aug. 5, Kristen Iversen will speak at the event at Los Alamos for the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
• Mon., Aug. 6 at 6 p.m., Kristen Iversen I will read from, sign, and discuss Full Body Burden at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
• For more about Full Body Burden, visit www.kristenivernsen.com.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.