Alumna's memoir chronicles secrets at nuclear weapons plant
June 18th, 2012
By: Valeria Finholm
From the back porch of her childhood home in Arvada, Colo., Kristen Iversen (PhD English '96) could see the water tower at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
The plant—built in 1952 on a swath of ranchland along the Front Range between Denver and Boulder—manufactured plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. But Iversen didn't know that when she was growing up in the 1960s and '70s. Neighbors who worked at the plant didn't talk about their jobs—or about accidents, leaks, and the fires that released plumes of radioactive plutonium into the air, where southeasterly winds dispersed the deadly particles over the rapidly growing suburb of Arvada.
"Rocky Flats was the big secret of my childhood," says Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown, 2012). "No one knew what they did at the plant; the rumor in the neighborhood was that they made household cleaning products."
Director of the creative writing program at the University of Memphis and the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth (Johnson Books, 1999), Iversen has written a riveting and deeply personal story of growing up in a place of stunning beauty and invisible danger. Iversen's memories of riding her horses in the fields surrounding the plant and swimming in the lake behind her house take on a menacing quality as she documents government attempts to conceal the effects of the radioactive waste released by the plant. Intertwined is the story of her family's own "secret"—her father's alcoholism.
In Full Body Burden, which was excerpted by Reader's Digest in its July/August 2012 edition, Iversen writes about a legacy of cancers—leukemia, lung cancer, brain tumors—in plant workers and in residents who lived downwind of the plant. She includes stories about her own health problems and those of family members.
"There is no safe level of exposure to plutonium," Iversen writes. "Even one millionth of a gram, which is easily inhaled, is potentially lethal." Plutonium also remains radioactive for thousands of years.
A major fire at the plant in 1969 was the costliest industrial accident in the U.S. at that time, according to the book. The blaze, which started when two pieces of plutonium caught fire, threatened to melt the roof off a building and had the potential to cause a nuclear reaction that would have killed everyone living close to the plant and covered the metro Denver area in plutonium ash, Iversen says. Firefighters contained the blaze before that happened, but they could not stop an explosion that exposed countless people in and around Denver to plutonium.
Few people outside of Rocky Flats knew about the fire.
"The day after the fire, the Rocky Mountain News runs a small story on page 28," Iversen writes in her book. "A plant spokesman states that the fire 'released a small amount of radioactive plutonium contamination,' all contained on site. The article appears just below a photo of the Pet of the Week."
Years later, as a young mother, Iversen worked at the plant. "The weekly reports that I typed described problems with toxic and radioactive waste storage, leaking drums and containers, spray 'irrigation' of radioactive waste, fires and other environmental problems," she says. "I learned strange acronyms like 'MUF,' which means 'material unaccounted for'—a bland way of saying that pounds of plutonium had been lost. The day I learned that I was literally working next to 14.2 metric tons of plutonium—much of it unsafely stored—was the day I knew I had to quit, and that someday I would write a book about Rocky Flats."
It took Iversen more than 10 years to write the book, which draws on extensive interviews, government documents and class-action testimony about the plant, once designated by the government as the most contaminated site in America.
The plant was shut down by the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 and designated as a Superfund site. There was talk of closing off the 6,200-acre site permanently and "making it a national sacrifice zone," Iversen says.
Instead there was a cleanup.
In June 2007, the EPA certified the cleanup as complete, despite the warnings of scientists that unsafe amounts of plutonium remain in the soil.
A month later, the Department of Energy transferred nearly 4,000 acres of the Rocky Flats site to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for eventual use as a public recreation area. About 1,200 acres of deeply contaminated land, including the former industrial zone and areas capped with cement, remain off-limits.
The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge remains closed to the public "due to a lack of appropriations for refuge management operations," according to its website.
Meanwhile, housing developments continue to be built on land surrounding the plant. Homebuyers no longer have to sign a waiver or statement—as Iversen's parents did—to acknowledge they've been told about plutonium in the soil, at a level the government says is safe, Iversen writes.
"There are many unknowns about what exactly is out there and where and how dangerous it is," Iversen says. "I just want to make sure the story is not forgotten."