Kristen Iversen on Writing Full Body Burden

Full Body Burden is a work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman 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 growing up 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. Author Kristen Iversen shares with us her thoughts while writing Full Body Burden:

Rocky Flats was the great monolith of my childhood. Everyone in my neighborhood knew of Rocky Flats and was fearful of it—and fascinated by it—but no one knew what really went on there. Some thought it manufactured cleaning supplies. For decades, Rocky Flats had been releasing toxic and radioactive elements into the air, water, and soil, but it had all been covered up. The government, Dow Chemical, and later Rockwell International, one of the nation’s largest industrial corporations, assured us that Rocky Flats was safe, despite constant and ongoing leaks and fires. There was a lot of cancer and illness in my neighborhood, and we all wondered if it was related to Rocky Flats. But no one talked openly about Rocky Flats.

I moved away after college and was living in Germany when the accident at Chernobyl occurred. (I thought I had escaped having to worry about radioactive contamination!) I returned to the States to go to graduate school. In 1995, when I was a single parent with two young sons, working my way through graduate school, I went to work at Rocky Flats. Many of the kids I grew up with had ended up working at Rocky Flats because the pay and benefits were so good. I needed the job, and I was keen to learn what actually happened at the plant.

The weekly reports that I typed as part of my job described problems with toxic and radioactive waste storage, leaking drums and containers, spray “irrigation” of radioactive waste, fires, and other environmental problems. I learned strange acronyms like MUF, meaning “material unaccounted for,” a bland way of saying that pounds of plutonium had been lost. I began to learn the history and problems of the plant, including some of the details of the 1989 FBI raid after which Plutonium operations ceased, and I felt stunned by what I had not known all those years—and what the public did not know. The day I learned that I was literally working next to 14.2 metric tons of plutonium—much of it unsafely stored—was the day I knew I had to quit, and that someday I would write a book about Rocky Flats.

  • Click here to Iversen’s full author essay: Kristen Iversen on Full Body Burden
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