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Nuclear Family

Secrecy and silence - at home, at Rocky Flats.

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You can't, but try picturing a microgram of the radioactive element plutonium. A microgram is one millionth of a gram, and if that one particle, which is easily airborne, enters the body, the U.S. Department of Energy considers it a potentially lethal dose — potentially, because, given time, any number of cancers and other health risks can be linked to it.

Now picture the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, west of Denver. You have to picture it, because the plant's buildings are gone, and the 6,000 acres where the plant once stood have been renamed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Still there's nothing to see. It's an empty landscape except for the No Trespassing signs. A third of the site is permanently fenced off, and what remains has yet to open to the public, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims it doesn't have the money to install walkways and hire staff. But if it did have the money, who would come?

In terms of hazardous waste and threat to the nearby population, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was, by the late 1980s, ranked by the Department of Energy as the most dangerous site in the United States. Inside, workers at Plexiglas "glove boxes" shaped plutonium into "triggers" for nuclear bombs, but accidents, ignorance, sloppy work habits, and the plant's cost-cutting routinely put those workers at risk for radioactive contamination. Outside the plant, land, water, and air were at risk too. Materials rich in radioactive waste seeped into the topsoil, to be carried by the area's fierce winds. More than 5,000 storage drums containing oil and solvents contaminated with plutonium and uranium were left standing to rust. Twelve thousand one-ton blocks of radioactive substances mixed with concrete stood outside too. By the 1980s, scientists, demonstrators, and lawyers demanded answers. The FBI too: In 1989, it conducted a raid on Rocky Flats to gather evidence that Dow Chemical, which managed the site, had improperly stored or disposed of radioactive waste and discharged pollutants into drinking water supplies.

But who knew what really went on inside and outside Rocky Flats in the 1950s and '60s, when the plant employed more than 3,700 people and manufactured more than 70,000 triggers? Not necessarily those very employees and certainly not the general public. Those who lived near Rocky Flats were downright thankful: The plant meant jobs, land was abundant, houses were affordable, and word on the outside said Rocky Flats manufactured cleaning supplies — as in, in the words of one woman, Scrubbing Bubbles.

That woman was Kristen Iversen's mother, and Iversen had no reason to doubt her. Growing up directly downwind from Rocky Flats, Iversen gave greater thought to the horses she loved to ride, to the landscape she loved to explore, to the minor indignities of high school, and to her dawning awareness that she wanted to become a writer. She worried more about her mother, who took to bed, on sedatives, in the afternoons, and about her father, a lawyer who took to alcohol until it ended his marriage and his career.

Iversen, director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Memphis, writes of all of it — radioactive waste; cancer rates; commercial and government cover-ups; scientific findings; citizen protests; class-action lawsuits; plus her own family dynamics — in Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown), a summer 2012 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. The key words throughout the book: secrecy and silence.

It was secrecy in the name of national security, so claimed Dow Chemical, that kept the company's actions alarmingly free of public scrutiny. And it was the secrecy and silence surrounding her father's alcoholism that led Iversen to write this brave story, which took, all told, a dozen years to research and compose and a lifetime, so far, for her to come to terms with.

"The body is an organ of memory, holding traces of all our experiences," Iversen, whose own health has perhaps been compromised by growing up so close to Rocky Flats, writes near the end of Full Body Burden (the title itself a brilliant combination of the medical and the metaphorical). "The land, too, carries the burden of all its changes. To truly see and understand a landscape is to see its depth as well as its smooth surfaces, its beauty and its scars."

Which Iversen here has done for her native Colorado and for her own family — scarred in places, still deeply loved.

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