My family never talks about feelings, and we certainly never talk about plutonium. It’s hard to take something seriously if you can’t see it, smell it, touch it, or feel it. Plutonium is a cosmic trick. The invisible enemy, the merry prankster. Can it hurt you or not? None of us know.
Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown 2012) is a book about the power of secrets and silence. It’s fusion of memoir and investigative journalism that weaves together Iversen’s less-than-ideal childhood—with an alcoholic father, a melancholic mother, and a suburban neighborhood contaminated by radioactivity in the air, the water, and the soil—with the development of the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado. Rocky Flats, open from 1952 to 199, built plutonium triggers for the United States’ ever-growing nuclear stockpile during the Cold War.
Using artifacts, court records, press releases, and interviews, Iverson focuses on the history, people, and repercussions of Rocky Flats. It’s a compelling read, so much so that I fought to return to as soon as the anesthesia and major pain medication wore off after my elbow surgery even when that meant holding the book open using my left hand and the pillows piled up next to me to keep my arm elevated.
In some ways, I resonate with Iversen’s story. First, there’s the familiar tale of an alcoholic parent. In my case it was my mother, but Iversen’s depiction of her father and the ways the family ignores, hides, and excuses his drinking mirrors much of my experiences with my mother. Second, there is the recklessness of a youth spent in open spaces before cell phones, the internet, and during a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a kid to head out after breakfast and spend the entire day on her own or with friends before hightailing it home before arrival would mean trouble.
Then there are the stories of deformed animals, cancers, birth defects, the poisoned groundwater, the nuclear accidents that sent clouds of radiation over Denver, and the vital health information that was suppressed over the decades. I remember awakening in the 1980s to the destructive power of nuclear waste. I wrote letters, attended protests, marched in the streets, and got arrested at the Nevada test site. And yet while I consider myself fairly-well informed about the history of this country’s flirtation with and full embrace of all things nuclear, much of the history of Rocky Flats was news to me, as it probably was those who lived in those suburbs with their “million-dollar views” of the Rockies who believed all the government assurances that all was well even after the 1957 fire in the manufacturing building melted the radiation sensors and released into the air somewhere between 1.1lb and 92lb of plutonium (estimates of MUF – material unaccounted for – varied), and after the next fire and the next.
Full Body Burden — the title refers to the amount of radioactive material at any time in a human body — is a powerful examination of the dangers of secrecy, and a warning that the secrecies of America’s embrace of all things nuclear continues. Rocky Flats, after decommissioning and a cleanup effort, has been now been declared a wildlife refuge:
Legislation that would have required additional signage informing visitors of what happened here, and why it might still be dangerous, has twice been defeated.
I wonder what other nuclear secrets continue to harm us?