Before the Cold War ended. Before the average person knew how to spell Chernobyl because of the nuclear accident there. And long before a severe earthquake rocked Japan last year, Rocky Flats was just another plateau in Colorado.
In 1951, that changed when the Atomic Energy Commission broke ground for a factory on Rocky Flats that would, eventually, produce plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. For decades, the plant operated just miles from Denver’s growing population. Today, the site has been turned into a nature preserve and some of Rocky Flats’ Cold War soldiers—the plant’s workers—still fight for medical benefits to combat the illnesses they believe were caused by their hazardous work at the plant. (Read more about these workers in Mike Kessler’s award-winning Out in the Cold.)
For Kristen Iversen, Rocky Flats’ nuclear past is personal. She spent her childhood near the site and even worked in the plant. But she wasn’t sure she could sell her story. Then, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rattled Japan and severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Half a planet away, Iversen’s story and the lingering legacy of Colorado’s Rocky Flats plant had new relevancy. The result is Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (June, Crown Publishing Group). We chatted with Iversen about Colorado transplants, cancer, and cleaning supplies.
Why did you want to write this book?
“It’s a troubled topic. It’s also a sad, dark story. And I felt absolutely it was a story that needed to be told. Colorado and the U.S. are eager to forget the story of Rocky Flats.”
What do Colorado’s transplants need to know about Rocky Flats?
“First, let me say that it is important, too, for people who grew up in Colorado. I was in Boulder a couple of weeks ago…[and a person I met] had grown up in Boulder—near Rocky Flats—and he was curious about what we were doing. He had never heard of Rocky Flats. This happened to me more than once.
People move in and out of Colorado all the time. They buy and sell houses, and they have no idea about Rocky Flats. It’s important to pay attention to that. I think Colorado is very pro-growth, pro-development. When I was a kid, for our house, my parents had to sign a waiver. But they were reassured: This is nothing. Don’t worry about it. We thought [the plant was] making household cleaning supplies.”
Why is the story of a closed nuclear plant still relevant?
“It’s an important story to the history of Colorado, our country, and the Cold War. We’re not building plutonium triggers anymore, but there is a huge amount of waste there. Whole sections are not suitable for humans.
My feeling is that I believe in full disclosure and transparency. People need to know what happened at that site and what lingers there so they can decide if they are going to let their five-year-old go out there on a field trip. I grew up there. I love that land. But I don’t believe there’s been full disclosure.”
Should Rocky Flats be a nature preserve?
“My personal opinion is that the site should never open to the public. There are certain sites in this country that are so profoundly contaminated. We should just describe them as national sacrifice zones.”
How pervasive is the “Rocky Flats legacy?”
“In my neighborhood alone, cancer affected almost every family….When we were growing up, we weren’t able to talk about a number of things. My sister and I both had boyfriends that had testicular cancer. …There was such a silencing. For years, I would drive by the activists and think they were crazy.”
When did you decide you wanted to tell your personal story and the Rocky Flats story?
“Rocky Flats was the great shadow and mystery of my childhood. I think I wrote the book to try to understand a lot of things. To understand Rocky Flats and my own family dynamics.
When I was working at the plant, I started taking notes in little black composition notebooks in my jeans pocket. I could see how the story was slipping away, and everyone seemed very eager to see that it happened. I thought, ‘No, someone has to tell this story.’
I want to emphasize that when Fukushima happened, it reminded the world in a terrible way that we can’t ignore the threat of nuclear contamination. It is easy to think it really doesn’t effect me. Rocky Flats is something that happened in my backyard, but it happens in everyone’s backyard.”