Book Review: “Full Body Burden — Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats” By Kristen Iversen


Kristen Iversen begins her last chapter, “What Lies Beneath,” with a discussion of silence: “The cost of silence and the secrets it contains is high, but you don’t learn the price until later. Secrets depend upon the smooth façade of silence, on the calm flat water that hides the darker depths.”

Jacket design: Evan Gaffney. Jacket background image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photograph Division, Haer Colo, 30-Gold, v, 1-8.

Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is an exploration of that silence on many levels: the Department of Energy’s (DOE) failure to reveal the extent of contamination at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility, where plutonium triggers, or pits, were produced from the 1950s through the 1980s; the Colorado Department of Health’s fudging on the extent of air, water, and soil contamination outside the facility; downwinders’ complicity in not demanding that information; and the wall of silence within Iversen’s family, also downwinders, about her father’s alcoholism. It’s the same silence that holds the secrets of Los Alamos National Laboratory; management that lies by omission; scientists who disdain oversight; and dependent communities that “know the price is too high” yet remain inextricably entwined in the colonial relationship.

Much of the language that Iversen uses to tell this “personal is the political” story is revelatory and euphemistic at the same time; a glossary is in order:

Full body burden: The amount of radioactive material present in a human body that acts as an internal and ongoing source of radiation. The DOE established permissible levels for lifetime accumulation from which the person would supposedly not suffer ill effects. Many of the workers at Rocky Flats knew they had a “full body burden.” But the pay was good and the mission—nuclear deterrence—was necessary. Iversen profiles some of them with honesty and empathy, although she doesn’t hesitate to ask where the fault lies, building nuclear bombs and poisoning ourselves in the process: “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?”

Incidents: Accidents. There were many “incidents” at Rocky Flats, although officials have always denied there was ever an incident of “criticality”, meaning uncontrolled fission or nuclear reaction. In the report of its 1989 raid of the facility the FBI (which shut down plutonium production and eventually the entire facility) claimed there were two a month.

• Plutonium triggers: Iversen herself calls the word “trigger” euphemistic. The trigger is actually an atomic bomb in its own right. There are two necessary steps to detonate a nuclear bomb: the trigger explosion of nuclear fission, plutonium-239, which initiates a secondary fusion explosion between tritium and deuterium. The plutonium bomb is about the size of a grapefruit and is capable of “leveling a small city.”

Pyrophoric incident: Fire. There were also a number of critical fires at Rocky Flats. The 1957 fire started in a glove box, where plutonium triggers are made in a closed environment with hand holes for the lead-lined gloves workers must wear, and spread through the plutonium production building. It burned so hot it melted the top of the ten-story exhaust stack and destroyed the radiation sensors. No one knows for sure how much radiation and other toxins were released into the environment: official estimates range from 500 grams to 92 pounds of plutonium. The Mother’s Day fire in 1969 also started in a glove box and burned for six hours. The AEC (Atomic Energy Commission, precursor to the DOE) confirms that 41 Rocky Flats employees were substantially contaminated by radiation, but that only “small” amounts of plutonium were released from the plant. Approximately $20 million worth of plutonium was consumed in the fire.

Downwinder scar: A area near Hanford, Washington, another nuclear production facility, where many people have neck scars from thyroid cancer operations. There were many other kinds of scars—physical, emotional, and financial—left on those who worked and lived near Rocky Flats. Iversen grew up in Arvada, Colorado, a suburb of Denver not far from Rocky Flats. She and her siblings and other neighborhood kids rode their horses and bikes to Standley Lake, whose floor is covered with plutonium sludge and was a source of drinking water for nearby communities. While there has never been a systematic health study of people living near Rocky Flats, there is substantial information documenting levels of contamination: plutonium, carbon tetrachloride, beryllium, dioxin, uranium, and tritium. The risks from inhaled plutonium include lung, liver, bone, and bone marrow cancer. Iversen and her siblings suffer from cancer and several autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and high white blood cell counts.

MUF: Material unaccounted for. The last shipment of transuranic (plutonium-laden) radioactive waste from Rocky Flats traveled to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico in October of 2005 and the “cleanup” of the facility was declared complete. Rocky Flats produced more than 1,800 plutonium pits per year. 2,600 pounds of plutonium are still missing.

Thrifty environmentalism: According to the government, turning former nuclear sites into nature reserves is “thrifty environmentalism. It would cost a fortune to clean up the site so people could live there . . . but making it safe for ‘wildlife-dependent’ public use is more affordable.” A La Jicarita reader commented on my previous article on Rocky Flats reminding me about William Cronon’s discussion of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, also in Denver, in his introduction to the seminal Uncommon Ground, a collection of essays that explore our conceptions of nature that separate the “natural” from the “human” (known in New Mexico as environmentalism sin gente). The Arsenal, a former Department of Defense manufacturing facility and one of the most toxic waste dumps in the United States, is now a wildlife refuge, dubbed the “Nation’s Most Ironic National Park.” Two thirds of the Rocky Flats area has been transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a wildlife refuge and public recreation area, although the Service says it doesn’t have the money to manage it. Many environmentalists then, and now, would prefer places like the Arsenal and Rocky Flats be classified National sacrifice zones, or areas that will remain toxic for so long that no living creature will be able to enter without endangering its health: “Close it, fence it, pave it over.” There are many such paradoxes—and the costs of the silence that surrounds them—in Iversen’s story.

Karin Iversen will be one of the speakers at the conference sponsored by Nukewatch, NukeFree Now, and Occupy on August 4 at the Center for Comtemporary Arts in Santa Fe to mark the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Other speakers at the conference will include Jay Coghlan and Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico; William Hartung, senior research professor at the New America Foundation; Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Joni Arends, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety; Jeff Dumas, Professor of Political Economy and the Macroeconomics of Military Spending, University of Texas; and Marylia Kelley, Executive Director of Tri-Valley CARES, Livermore, CA. For a full schedule of speakers, films, shows and events in Santa Fe/ Los Alamos, click here.

A reminder also about the events in Los Alamos:

On Sunday, August 5 there will be a rally to commemorate the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima at Ashley Pond in Los Alamos with music, speakers, and a peace march led by Pax Christi. On Monday, August 6 there will be a full day of non-violent direct action organized by NukeFreeNow and Occupy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s