Full Body Burden is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated "the most contaminated site in America." It's the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and - unknown to those who lived there - tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.
It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets - both family and government. Her father's hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed) - best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.
But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 Mother's Day fire, in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited and - despite the desperate efforts of firefighters - came perilously close to a "criticality", the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called "incidents".
And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism - a detailed and shocking account of the government's sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents' vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers - from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job.
Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.
"Full Body Burden is one of the most important stories of the nuclear era - as personal and powerful as Silkwood, told with the suspense and narrative drive of The Hot Zone. With unflinching honesty, Kristen Iverson has written an intimate and deeply human memoir that shows why we should all be concerned about nuclear safety, and the dangers of ignoring science in the name of national security. Rocky Flats needs to be part of the same nuclear discussion as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. So does Full Body Burden. It's an essential and unforgettable book that should be talked about in schools and book clubs, online and in the White House." (Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)
"What a surprise! You don't expect such (unobtrusively) beautiful writing in a book about nuclear weapons, nor such captivating storytelling. Plus the facts are solid and the science told in colloquial but never dumbed-down terms. If I could afford them, I'd want the movie rights. Having read scores of nuclear books, I venture a large claim: Kristin Iversen's Full Body Burden may be a classic of nuclear literature, filling a gap we didn't know existed among Hersey's Hiroshima, Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe, and Kohn's Who Killed Karen Silkwood?" (Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc. and HOT)
"This terrifyingly brilliant book - as perfectly crafted and meticulously assembled as the nuclear bomb triggers that lie at its core - is a savage indictment of the American strategic weapons industry, both haunting in its power, and yet wonderfully, charmingly human as a memoir of growing up in the Atomic Age." (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic)
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A story that no one else wanted to tell.
If you live near ANY government facility that is surrounded by a fence, this is a MUST-read. If you live near any of the government facilities that are discussed - by name, this is an actionable-read.
1. The audio quality of the first 45 minutes (...or so) is sub-standard. Don't be discouraged by this: keep listening.
2. The ending could have included more detail about the blitzkrieg-cleanup of the buildings and soil.
P.S. The local-alternative newspaper she mentions is named Westword. It has a web site where archival issues can be viewed. About 10 years ago, they did an investigative series on Rocky Flats that is thorough and provides supporting data/viewpoints to Ms. Iversen's material
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