Somewhere in Colorado, a public official is cursing the name Kristin Iversen. It is impossible to read her Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats without seriously reconsidering any plans to visit or reside in the Centennial State — at the very least, you may want to refrain from eating or drinking anything local.
Iversen and her three K-named siblings — Karin, Karma, and Kurt — grew up in Arvada, a small city close to Denver, in the 1960s and ’70s. The author had a shy childhood, racing home from school to ride her horse, nursing a crush on a neighborhood boy, and avoiding her father on one of his alcoholic rampages. But the real danger for the family — the one that is reflected in mysterious ailments that doctors can’t diagnose — was the Rocky Flats Plant, built in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission (and eventually run by the Department of Energy) to produce plutonium buttons, a necessary component of the United States’ cold war weaponry. The compound’s twinkling lights were a sight to marvel from Iversen’s home in a housing development. Unbeknownst to her and everyone else, the plant was poisoning the land and water around her family and neighbors.
The book is fascinating from a historical perspective, and disturbing, and tragic. Very few people knew what was happening at Rocky Flats, including many of the plant’s employees. Major fires in 1957 and 1969 could have led to cataclysmic disasters if it weren’t for a series of lucky mistakes that stopped them before it was too late, and the fallout was practically irreparable. The plant was fundamentally central to Arvada’s economy, so much so that Iversen took an administrative job at Rocky Flats for a number of post-Cold War years.
Though it was long ago decommissioned, there is still controversy surrounding the Rocky Flats site, which the U.S. government is hoping to turn into a wildlife refuge that humans will be allowed to visit, despite skepticism and objection from the surrounding community. But the book is strong, and at the very least, it is a grim reminder that another DOE nuclear site, the Savannah River Site, is only 140 miles away.
Iversen describes the events at the plant, as well as the protests, investigations, health studies, and eventual trials as a result of its negligence, as vividly as she recounts her own past. Each chapter alternates between memoir and historical recount, each competing for your attention, but soon the factual details start to feel a little excessive, and it may be difficult to keep up with the countless, under-established characters.