“Body burden: The amount of radioactivity present in a human body, which acts as an internal and ongoing source of radiation.”
So begins this amazing book.
I found “Full Body Burden” immediately charming, compelling, and horrific. Iversen intertwines the riveting tale of Rocky Flats, a criminally mismanaged federal nuclear weapons facility, with that of her small family living the epitome of the American dream on the outskirts of Arvada, Colorado.
Iversen’s beautiful and concise prose would have made this an interesting and worthwhile read if it had only been the story of a young woman growing up on the high plains of eastern Colorado with all the requisite challenges and triumphs that any young family might face. The addition of the harrowing and destructive realities of growing up next to the “most contaminated site in America” changes the story from one of familial calamity and pathos to one of environmental cataclysm and terror.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the atmosphere of willing denial in which the whole community participated. No one seemed to want to ask too many questions or know too much about what was going on there.
“I think they’re making cleaning supplies,” was Kristen’s mother’s speculation (because of the relationship that Rocky Flats had with Dow Chemical).
Even more astonishing was the cavalier and haphazard way the plant was operated, especially considering the fact that one “trigger” has enough breathable particles of plutonium in it to kill every single human being on the planet. Throughout the life of the plant there were several near-catastrophic “incidents.” There was the 1969 “Mother’s Day fire,” for instance, which almost resulted in an explosion that would have devastated the Denver metro area.
Meanwhile, back at home, Kristen and her siblings are expected to overlook their father’s increasing alcoholism and their mother’s apparent addiction to prescription medications as their family strives to keep itself together. At the same time, children and animals in the town are showing evidence of rare and relatively unknown cancers and diseases. Finally, in 1987, the FBI raided Rocky Flats and discovered numerous violations of federal anti-pollution laws, including limited contamination of water and soil. In 1992, plant owner Rockwell was charged with environmental crimes including violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Clean Water Act.
Rockwell pleaded guilty and paid an $18.5 million fine. This was the largest fine for an environmental crime to that date.
Ms. Iversen spent approximately ten years researching the material for this book, at one point actually working at the facility, meticulously collecting data and details, incident and accident reports that comprise the record of malfeasance of a corporation and a government in this searing indictment of weapons-grade stupidity and arrogance.