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Nightmare in the Colorado Rockies

  • May 10, 2012
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In 1951 a group of men from the federal agency then known as the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) huddled in a nondescript hotel in Denver, Colorado. Their mission: to pinpoint a suitable location for the construction of a $45 million dollar industrial complex whose primary mission was to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. The Cold War was in full swing and production of these nuclear devices was deemed essential to the security of our nation. State and local officials and area residents were led to believe that the plant, to be managed by Dow Chemical, would be producing cleaning products. Author Kristen Iversen was just a little kid when her unsuspecting parents purchased a brand new home just moments away from the plant that would come to be known as Rocky Flats. The developer dubbed the new subdivision Bridledale. Like virtually all of their friends and neighbors Kristen and her family were blissfully unaware of the dangers posed by that plant. Kristen Iversen chronicles her experiences in her brand new offering "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." This meticulously documented and exceptionally well-written memoir is a very compelling read to say the least. You will meet several of the key players in a drama that has spanned more than six decades. I simply could not put this one down.

In "Full Body Burden" Kristen Iversen masterfully weaves her experiences growing up in the shadows of the Rocky Flats complex with the harsh realities of having an alcoholic father. Although he was not abusive Dad made life considerably more difficult than it should have been for Kristen's mom and her three siblings. Kristen was an outdoor girl and she had a fierce love of horses. She fondly recalls her horse Tonka whom she used to ride out near the perimeter of Rocky Flats all the time. Kristen's first inkling that there might be a problem with the plant would come when she and Tonka happened upon a dead cow at the edge of Standley Lake. She describes the scene this way: "The lower half of the cow's body lies in the water, soggy and swollen. The upper half extends long and rigid across the ground. Her head stretches up achingly, as if she had tried to pull herself out. The eyes bulge." Although she has an uneasy feeling Kristen like so many others trusted that our government would never put people in harm's way. The matter is never pursued. By the way, young Kristen Iversen aspires to be a writer someday.

Years later Kristen decides to write a book about just what went down at Rocky Flats. In "Full Body Burden" you will meet many of the folks who worked at this highly toxic plant over the years as well as some of those who resided in the immediate area. You will be horrified by the way that the complex was managed by both Dow Chemical and its successor Rockwell International. There was such little regard for the health and welfare of both the employees and the residents of the surrounding communities. The decisions that were made by those in positions of power both at the plant and in the U.S. Government would negatively impact the health and welfare of so many. What went on was downright criminal. More than 5000 barrels of toxic waste were stored outside at the facility. These barrels were simply rusting away and according to Iversen "Each thirty to fifty gallon drum holds waste oil and solvents contaminated with plutonium and uranium, for a total of hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid waste laced with radioactive material. They can't be shipped, they can't be stored and no on-site building can hold them all." No wonder cancer rates will prove to be unusually high in this area. Kristen also discusses two major "events" that took place at Rocky Flats in 1957 and 1969. In the 1969 fire more than $20 million of plutonium was consumed. As you will see information about these accidents was largely covered-up by those in charge. Years go by.

We discover that it is not until 1987 that two courageous men from separate government agencies (Joe Lipsky of the FBI and William Smith of EPA) finally launch an exhaustive investigation into what has been going on at Rocky Flats. The investigation proves to be a painstakingly slow process. A special "hotline" is established to take tips from whistle-blowers and concerned citizens. Jim Stone, an engineer hired all those years ago to help design Rocky Flats agrees to help. His testimony is devastating. There is a raid by the FBI on Rocky Flats in the summer of 1989. Shortly thereafter a group of local residents decide to initiate a class-action suit against Rockwell. A young attorney from Philadelphia named Peter Norberg is assigned the case. He does not realize it at the time but the case will consume him for the rest of his life.

As you might expect there can really be no happy ending to the story Kristen Iversen tells in "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." A cleanup of the site authorized by the Department of Energy would finally begin but as you can well imagine this turns out to be a messy, astronomically expensive and extremely time consuming project. "The cleanup itself generates waste. Every glove, shovel, screwdriver, and wrench used to disassemble the Rocky Flats equipment becomes toxic too......For every single pound of detoxified equipment, another 1.6 pounds of waste is generated." Incredible! One must wonder where will it will all end. Believe it or not plans are in the works to transform the site into a National Wildlife Refuge! You have got to be kidding me! The tale that Kristen tells in this book is a very personal one for her personally but at the same time you can see the devastating impact that Rocky Flats had on tens of thousands of workers, family members and area residents. Reading "Full Body Burden" was certainly an eye-opener for me. I simply had no idea. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative, liberal or libertarian you really do need to read this book. There is an awful lot to chew on here. Very highly recommended!

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May 14, 2012
You've convinced me I have to read this. Thank you, and well done.
May 11, 2012
Sounds interesting for sure!
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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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 ...

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