Full Body Burden

ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Arvada, Colorado, where Kristen Iversen grew up, there was a secret factory, owned by Dow Chemical. Even the townspeople lucky enough to land one of the high-paying blue collar jobs at Rocky Flats didn’t seem to know what was manufactured there—was it Scrubbing Bubbles?—and after a while, they forgot to ask. It was not until much later, when townspeople began dying of cancers linked to radiation, that they began to investigate. And it wasn’t just workers—all over Arvada, Iversen’s friends and family became sick with thyroid and lymph node problems, brain tumors, and testicular cancer (this last shockingly present in pubescent boys, including Iverson’s first crush).

Full Body Burden—the title taken from a term the Department of Energy uses to indicate the “permissible” lifetime accumulation of radiation in the body—documents in convincing detail the Cold War culture at Rocky Flats, which, from 1952 to 1989, “manufacture[d] more than seventy thousand plutonium triggers, at a cost of nearly $4 million apiece. Each one contain[ed] enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.” The book is impressively researched, but it’s also impressively readable—as revealed in its subtitle, Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, this book is also a memoir, and Iversen artfully weaves together episodes of the plant’s life with moments from her own.

The crucial link between the two stories is secrecy. Just as the residents of Arvada never asked critical questions and so were never able to receive answers that would have led to the discovery that they were being poisoned by toxic and radioactive waste, Iversen grew up as the child of an alcoholic father and a mother determined to look the other way. In one particularly fraught scene, Iversen’s drunk father loads the girls in the car with their beloved horses hitched behind in the trailer and has an accident that is covered up. Likewise, in Rocky Flats, the 1969 Mother’s Day fire nearly resulted in a nuclear explosion that would have devastated Denver—but was reported in the Rocky Mountain News on page twenty-eight, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. Iversen generates considerable tension in her story as these damaging secrets accrue. The braided narratives gird and support each other, suggesting that family conspiracies and negligence can poison a childhood just as surely as the plutonium leaking into the same groundwater in which Iversen splashed as a child to free a stuck horse.

As an adult, Iversen returns to Arvada—even working, for a period, at Rocky Flats—and uses eyewitness interviews as well as class-action testimony to uncover the government’s attempts to conceal the toxic waste the plant released. She turns the same investigative eye to the concealments that harmed her family. Iversen’s compelling prose draws the reader through both narratives and leaves the feeling that Full Body Burden is an important contribution to both nuclear literature and memoir.