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Full Body Burden

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

Kristen Iversen

Crown, 416 pp., $25

In many ways, Kristen Iversen had a dreamy 1960s and 1970s Colorado childhood: unfettered grasslands under the Rockies through which to ride horses bareback, sparkling reservoirs and irrigation ditches outside the family's new subdivision to swim in, a boyfriend with a motorbike.  But there was a vague, sinister undercurrent. In keeping with the times, her mother would toss young Iversen and her three siblings outside to play somewhere, anywhere, until dinner. Inside the house, her mother chain-smoked and took mysterious pills. The secrets mounted: her father, an alcoholic, hid bottles of liquor behind the furniture.

Outside, too, things were not quite what they seemed. A few miles away loomed the white tower of a Dow Chemical factory -- later taken over by Rockwell -- that was believed by the neighbors to make soap. Known as Rocky Flats, it employed thousands of workers (who were sworn to secrecy) from nearby Denver and Boulder. What the factory really made, of course, were the explosive plutonium detonators of nuclear bombs, more than 70,000 of them over four decades.

It's the culture of stealth and complicity, both domestic and defense-related, that Iversen examines in her powerful memoir, Full Body Burden. Woven with menace and suspense, Iversen's book slowly unpacks how patriarchy, patriotism, the cold war's military-industrial complex, and a flawed legal system kept her and others in the dark about two thousand pounds of missing, migrating plutonium. At the same time, her family life unravels as her father keeps drinking and no one says anything about it, even after a car accident flips the horse trailer and breaks Iversen's neck.

"My family never talks about feelings, and we certainly never talk about plutonium," she writes. "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."

By the late 1970s, studies showed a doubling of childhood leukemia around Rocky Flats, a 33 percent increase in lung cancer, and unusually high rates of testicular, brain, and ovarian cancer. But, as Iversen vividly recounts, no one wanted to hear it. Local politicians feared a reduction in property values, Rocky Flats' management denied culpability, and the EPA at first insisted the levels of contamination in soil and water were safe. Whistle-blowers and concerned public officials were fired, forced out, and discredited. Documents and human tissue samples went missing. A federal grand jury eventually voted to indict eight employees for criminal negligence, but a U.S. attorney refused to sign the indictments. The grand jury documents, filled with testimony and data, have remained under seal for 22 years.

Some of Iversen's neighbors ended up with brain tumors and leukemia. They drank well water. The Iversen family, though, was unable to dig a well in their backyard, so they drank relatively clean city water from nearby Arvada. The four Iversen siblings didn't emerge unscathed, however. Plagued by vague immune system problems and chronic exhaustion, they count themselves lucky.

Iversen's tale joins the growing ranks of what might be termed "environmental memoir," a genre popularized by a cadre of women directly indebted to Rachel Carson:  Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge), Sandra Steingraber (Living Downstream), Nancy Nichols (Lake Effect), and Nancy Lang-ston (Toxic Bodies). Silent Spring, published exactly 50 years ago, first called out the unspoken connections between industrial pollution and human health.

Like those others, Full Body Burden makes a case for why these links must be made visible and the bodies counted. As with the best in this stack, Iversen's book avoids outright bitterness. Her writing mixes the lyrical and the logical. This is a real coming-of-age-in-nuclear-America story. Iversen learns how the world works, and it's not pretty.

"Were we," she asks, " -- are we -- living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow?" Maybe the bomb was insurance against devastation; maybe it just bred its own, more insidious harm. But as Iversen points out, a full discussion of the trade-offs was never had, and it should have been.

image of Florence Williams
Florence Williams writes about health and the environment from her home in Washington, D.C. Her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History won the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science & Technology and was named a Notable Book of 2012 by th... READ MORE >