Rocky Flats: Full Body Burden (review)

Pre-script: I heard Ms. Iversen speak at the 'Mountain of Waste 70 years high' conference held in Chicago Dec. 1-3/12. Many, many, many awesome speakers!! Transcripts from that conference here. You can also hear Ms. Iversen speak about Full Body Burden here (this from June 2012).  Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, by Kristen Iversen (published by Crown Publishers in 2012), is a well-written & compelling book pretty much guaranteed to make your blood boil…assuming you have blood & not ice running in your veins.

** review in the NY Times here.

“The term body burden was used to describe the amount of radioactive material present in a human body, which acts as an internal and ongoing source of radiation. The DOE established a permissible “full body burden” for lifetime accumulation of radiation within the body on the assumption that a worker whose exposure did not exceed this level would not suffer ill effects. Although some workers whose body burden was near the limit did not experience any adverse health effects, others exposed at levels far less than the permitted full body burden developed various types of cancers. Exposure to plutonium was linked to cancers, brain tumors, and reproductive disorders, but plutonium was determined to be the most dangerous when taken into the lungs. Particles of plutonium weighing 10 micrograms or less can easily be inhaled.”

This is a shocking story.

The book’s author (born in 1958) grew up in Arvada, Colorado, near Rocky Flats – the U.S. government Department of Energy (DOE)’s secret weapons facility near Denver, Colorado.

Ms. Iversen, director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Memphis & editor-in-chief of The Pinch (an award-winning literary journal), grew up near the plant, but spent her youth mostly oblivious to its existence or its impacts. As she puts it in the book, “My family never talks about feelings, and we certainly never talk about plutonium.”

That’s the way the government wanted it. People who worked at Rocky Flats were not even allowed to tell their own family members about the work they were engaged in there. Rumours of much more innocuous purposes abounded in the early days. Soap bubbles were what some thought was being manufactured by Dow Chemical, the company (then) running the plant.

But Rocky Flats might as well have been called “Plutonium To Go.” Or perhaps “Plutonium-Spewing: the Name of Our Game.”

Plutonium, so dangerous “a single microgram – that is, one millionth of a gram of plutonium – is considered by the DOE to be a potentially lethal dose” was spewed around Rocky Flats as though there was no tomorrow.

Iversen writes “The problem with Rocky Flats is not just a smoking chimney or a hole in the dike. The weapons plant is like a bag filled with ultrafine sand – a bag filled with millions of glittering, radioactive specks too tiny to see – and the bag has been pricked with pins.”

In the 37 years between 1952 & 1989, more than 70,000 plutonium “triggers” (for bombs) were made at Rocky Flats. They cost $4 million each. “Each one contains enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.”

Plutonium & other radionuclides (e.g., tritium) & chemical toxins – went everywhere (probably still do, ‘though the manufacture of “triggers” was stopped in 1989 after a massive raid of the plant by a joint force of more than 70 agents from the FBI & Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA).

Shoddy practices, leaking barrels, burning waste, discharges into a nearby creek, dispersion by wind, workplace exposures for workers, many fires. Government & eventually a judicial cover-up: this is the shocking story of Rocky Flats, Colorado. Almost literally unbelievable.

Of course cancer had also spread quietly around Rocky Flats. Accompanied by silence & inaction on the part of most so-called health authorities & government officials. Developers, needless to say, kept mum also – they just kept building & selling houses.

Read it & weep. This is a story that will surely shock & probably infuriate you. It will also open your eyes & very likely destroy any faith you might have had left in government & public health agencies.

“Governments aren’t supposed to poison their own people.”

Yet they did.

The story isn’t over. The U.S. federal government has turned the property over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – to be used as a wildlife refuge and public recreation area. (I am not making this up.)

Read the book! Like me, you may keep saying over & over & over again, “This can’t possibly be true!”

Sadly, it is. It is all too true.


p.s. & it puts me in mind of the town of Shirley, on Long Island, New York, & the book Kelly McMasters wrote about growing up there. Her book is called Welcome to Shirley - a memoir of an atomic town, & I am sorry I never reviewed her book, but I did talk about it in a p.s. to the posting 'Atomic Towns.' & you might want to read that p.s. & find out about the movie that's been made, the one called 'Atomic States of America.' & you might want to see that movie...(trailer here & the whole darn shebang of a film here)

p.p.s. the 1990 film 'Dark Circle' "follows the trail of plutonium from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons facility in Colorado, to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Plutonium, the most toxic substance in the world, links these locations and the people whose lives are irrevocably changed by it."

p.p.p.s. 6 weeks or so after posting this: just watched a 7-minute YouTube about Rocky Flats -- here -- worth watching/hearing!!

p.s. #4 (2 1/2 years later): a blog about Rocky Flats to check out! LeRoy Moore's Blog.

‘Quote of the day’ with this post: “We don’t talk about plutonium. It’s bad for business. It reminds us of what we don’t want to acknowledge about ourselves. We built nuclear bombs, and we poisoned ourselves in the process. Where does the fault lie? Atomic secrecy, the Cold War culture, bureaucratic indifference, corporate greed, a complacent citizenry, a failed democracy? What is a culture but a group of individuals acting on the basis of shared values?” – Kristen Iversen in Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

** many nuke-related quotations here

Runners-up for Q of the Day:

“The managers, the administration, they never go down there. They don’t go down in the bowels of the plant. They keep their hands clean.” – unidentified colleague of author Kristen Iversen in her days working at Rocky Flats, from Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats 

“Silence is an easy habit. But it doesn’t come naturally. Silence has to be cultivated, enforced by implication and innuendo, looks and glances, hints of dark consequences. Silence is greedy. It insists upon its own necessity. It transcends generations.

Silence is almost always well-intentioned. What parent hasn’t scolded their child? We don’t talk about things like that. Just look the other way. Keep your thoughts to yourself. This is just for our family to know. You can forget this ever happened. Let’s not upset anyone. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

The cost of silence and the secrets it contains is high, but you don’t learn the price until later. Secrets depend upon the smooth façade of silence, on the calm flat water that hides the darker depths.” – Kristen Iversen in Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats 

“It takes miniscule amounts of plutonium to cause cancer or promote cancer. We know there is an awful lot of plutonium out there. The soil-borne contamination has been progressively redistributed by wind in the direction of the heart of Denver. Plutonium-induced cancers in people may take twenty or thirty years to develop. In effect, everybody living within eight or ten miles east and southeast of Rocky Flats may be guinea pigs.” – Dr. Edward Martell (Ph.D in radiochemistry) testifying in 1989 at the Grand Jury hearing into Rocky Flats goings-on that took place over 2½ years (from Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats) 

“The physicist Fritjob Capra says plutonium should be contained and isolated for half a million years.” – Kristen Iversen in Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats 

“Governments aren’t supposed to poison their own people. We weren’t supposed to know about Rocky Flats during the production years, and now we are supposed to forget it ever existed.” – Kristen Iversen in Full Body Burden - Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats 

“Nuclear power grew out of the nuclear weapons program, and the nuclear fuel cycle still produces the elements — uranium and plutonium — which can be used to make nuclear weapons or radioactive “dirty bombs.” The nuclear industry argues that any nation or terrorist does not need a nuclear power plant to make a bomb, they just need uranium enrichment. This is true. However, the only “legitimate” reason to enrich uranium is to use it in a nuclear power plant. The continued promotion and sale worldwide of “civilian” nuclear reactors thus gives nations the excuse to operate uranium enrichment programs, as we have seen in Iran.” ~ Craig Severance 

“Nobody really knows how to clean up radiation.”  day labourer in Japan who is working on clean-up in village 20 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors

“Today no task is more pressing and noble, not only for a scientist, but also for any sober-minded individual, than to prevent nuclear insanity.” – Valery Legasov, head of the former Soviet delegation to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). He was upset over both the Chernobyl disaster & its handling at the IAEA & UN, & later took his life over it. [many more nuke-related quotes here & also here]