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Full Body Burden

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“The body is an organ of memory, holding traces of all our experiences. 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.” Kristen Iversen’s nonfiction account of the many ways her life has intertwined with Colorado’s Rocky Flats nuclear facility pursues these burdens of change. While examining herself and her family dynamics, she simultaneously uncovers the history of her surrounding landscape in order to truly see and understand. Joining her on this journey of discovery, the reader learns two things—the beauty of Iversen’s moral imagination and the extent of the scars on the land of Rocky Flats.

As the author of a fictional account (Friendly Fallout, 1953) of the Nevada Test site, where nuclear ‘devices’ were detonated for decades, I’ve read a lot about Cold War machinations and government obfuscation and the subsequent fallout on innocent neighbors. But Full Body Burden Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats was a real eye-opener. More than seventy thousand plutonium disks, used to trigger nuclear weapons, were fabricated at Rocky Flats for years. Safety standards apparently were haphazard at best, and control of hazardous materials was less than perfect. All this, at a facility less than fifty miles away from a major metropolitan area, a facility surrounded by a surging suburban population.

Iversen writes about her innocent childhood in that suburbia, how she and her friends swam in a lake where plutonium sludge was accruing, how they played in constantly blowing dirt and breathed in increasingly contaminated air. At the same time, she narrates stories of the nearby plutonium plant, where productivity took precedence over precautions time after time. With meticulous research, she tells of on-site fires burning out of control and uncounted tons of waste blowing toward Denver year after year. Iversen explains the legal steps taken by Coloradans to stop the pollution. And she also reveals the ways those steps were stymied by the Department of Energy, by the Justice Department, and by the courts. When studies found unacceptable levels of contamination, benchmarks were changed to permit the higher numbers. When a grand jury handed down sweeping indictments, a judge vacated their findings and ordered their deliberations permanently sealed. When scientists insisted it would take decades, if not longer, to clean the place up, Rocky Flats was ‘cleansed’ in a matter of months. It’s now a wild life refuge that will be open to visitors as soon as the public forgets the cloud hanging over its head.

Iversen not only grew up alongside Rocky Flats, she even worked there for a while. As a teenager, as a college student, as a temporary secretary, she was listening to people talk about the facility and taking notes on what they were saying. Her account carries the force of actual voices remembering their experiences, and their fears, as workers, firefighters, lawyers, protestors, ordinary homeowners who happened to settle nearby. Iversen’s own family history weaves in and out of the stories of others, its light and dark moments paralleling the shadows of their ominous neighbor. All of them—family members and landscape alike–carry a ‘body burden’—the amount of radioactive material a body can stand.

Finally, at the end of her story, Iversen ironically asks a serious and sweeping question. “Were we—are we—living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow?” Every reader of this excellent book will find the answer, like a full body burden, a troubling one.                                                                                                        – A.R.

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