Superbug Summer Books: FULL BODY BURDEN

I started my journalism career as a projects reporter, working on the kind of investigations that involve sitting in windowless rooms for weeks digging through stacks of old documents. One of the investigations I worked on was the ugly history of the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center outside Cincinnati, a 1,000-acre site near the Indiana border that was one of the links in the manufacturing chain for nuclear weapons after the Manhattan Project made them possible. The plant had been run with a sloppiness that seemed incredible — over the years, millions of pounds of uranium had literally vanished up its smokestacks and into the air and groundwater — and residents of the rural area  were convinced it was responsible for what seemed to be an unusually high rate of cancers nearby.

One of the striking things about their stories was how often they admitted they hadn’t known what was going on at Fernald. The water tower was painted with a red-and-white checkerboard, a little like the logo for Purina, and between that and the facility’s uninformative name, the neighbors had gotten the idea that the plant made pet food. When they discovered that it was actually enriching uranium to make fuel cores for plutonium-production reactors, they felt betrayed, and enraged enough to sue — and, eventually, win.

I always wondered what how the neighbors could have been so deceived, or so trusting, for such a long time. A new book, “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats” (Crown), answered that for me. Kristen Iversen, who is now the director of the MFA creative writing program at University of Memphis, grew up by the plant where Fernald’s “feed materials” eventually ended up: Rocky Flats, which manufactured the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, and which was even more dangerously sloppy than Fernald. (A 1969 fire was damped down just as it risked becoming a criticality that could have destroyed the Denver metro area.)

Her book is simultaneously a careful memoir of a haunted childhood and a ferocious interrogation of deliberate environmental and public health neglect, and its slow revelation of family and government secrets has the hypnotic force of a horror story.  For the fifth installment of Superbug Summer Books, I talked to Iversen by phone and edited and condensed our chat.

Maryn McKenna: What I find so extraordinary about this story — the story of the whole nuclear-manufacturing chain, and your piece of that story — is the inexorable unveiling of what had never been admitted to. You describe so well that trust that everyone had, that if something was wrong, the government would tell you, and the devastation of discovering that the official story was just not true.

Kristen Iversen: In a sense, the book is the story of my own awakening, facing and understanding what happened at Rocky Flats, and also understanding why it was repressed for so long. This is not a historical story; this is not something that happened in the past. This is a story that’s very relevant right up to the present moment. The environmental and human health cost of Rocky Flats is significant. I feel such an insistence that this story not be forgotten.

MM: The thing that’s so — I won’t say odd, but sad —  is that it’s been necessary to tell the story so many times. There were protests at Rocky Flats in the 1970s, there was a documentary in the 1980s, there was the Nightline special which you describe seeing in 1995, and I know from reading them that there were newspaper stories throughout. There were major journalistic attempts to uncover what went on, and yet the machine kept grinding.

KI: I was in Boulder just a couple of weeks ago and I mentioned to the clerk at the hotel’s front desk that I was in town to sign this book. He had grown up there, he was in his 30s, and he didn’t know anything about Rocky Flats; he had never heard of it. If you go out to the Rocky Flats site now — it’s in the process of being turned into a public recreation area and wildlife refuge, even though 1,300 acres of the site are still so profoundly contaminated that they can never be opened — there are no signs, there is no indication that anything ever happened there. They are building houses right up to the edge. There are plans to put a highway through. The Rocky Flats site is a very desirable location, right between Boulder and Denver, and it is gorgeous, so there’s always been a great deal of real estate interest and business interest in it. People are just as eager as they were years ago to pretend that nothing happened, to pretend that the land is safe.

MM: You’re a teacher of writing and the head of an academic writing program, so I am curious how you think of this story as a story.

KI: When I thought of predecessors to the kind of book that I wanted to write, I thought of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.” I wanted to put a human face on an inhumane story, and I wanted to tell a true story. I wanted it to read like a novel and yet be based in fact. I find it interesting that, as I’ve heard from readers all over the country, some people describe it as a thriller. That is something that I hadn’t thought of, but there are parts of the story that are very exciting or very tense, with peoples’ lives are at stake.

MM: Can you talk a bit about the materials that were available to you, that you relied on to make the book both dramatic and accurate?

KI: There’s an incredible wealth of information available now. There’s a wonderful archive at the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Carnegie Library in Boulder; it contains close to 200 interviews of people who worked at Rocky Flats at various times throughout the years: workers, activists, local residents, some of the nuns who were involved in the protests. (Those are some of my favorite interviews. The nuns were just incredible.) I did many, many interviews on my own; I had a couple of research assistants helping me over the years. There was a lot of material released through the Freedom of Information Act, in the years Clinton was in office, in particular. But, all the material that resulted from the FBI raiding the plant in 1989, and the grand jury investigation afterward, where the grand jury was so outraged there were no indictments that they wrote their own grand-jury report — all of that material is still sealed by the court, to the present day. It wasn’t even available to the company that did the clean-up.

MM: I’m fascinated by the parallels you draw between your own family’s story – your father’s alcoholism, which you all cope with but never speak of — and the way that the truth was never spoken either about what was going on at Rocky Flats. It’s as though the plant and its neighbors made up an abusive family in which no one could breach the silence.

KI: I was frightened by two things as a child, by Rocky Flats and by my father’s alcoholism. We were taught so thoroughly, in a very Scandinavian kind of way, to look the other way. I saw a real connection between what happened in my family and what happened at Rocky Flats. This idea of secrecy and silencing at the level of family and community and beyond, and then the high cost we pay individually and as a culture for that kind of secrecy and silence.

(image: Jay Adkins)

MM: In the book you discuss a class-action suit that thousands of homeowners around Rocky Flats brought against the plant’s operators, Rockwell International and Dow Chemical. Everyday people without power, who had been deceived and misled for years, finally had their day in court. Staggeringly, they won – and then the companies appealed and the verdict was overturned. What happened next?

KI: Just a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court declined to review the case. So we’re basically back to ground zero, to where we were 20 years ago. The Court offered very little commentary about why they decided not to take the case. It’s interesting, because we’re in an election year and neither candidate really wants to talk about nuclear issues. Everyone wants to be very pro-nuclear power. But there’s no question as to whether or not there is plutonium contamination in peoples’ backyards. The question is, Can you prove the link to the increased rate of cancer and health effects, and that’s what’s been very difficult. You know, the private corporations that operate these plants are largely indemnified from any legal responsibility in the case of a nuclear accident, or “incident,” as they call it. These companies would not go into the production of nuclear weapons or even the operation of nuclear power plants if they did not have that indemnification: Nobody would do it unless the government provided this kind of safety net. So, where does that leave citizens? They have to be able to rely upon the courts, and the courts, I believe, are failing us.

MM: What would you most want people to take away from this book? What sort of lesson should they draw?

KI: I hope the book will be a wake-up call to people who live near nuclear power plants or weapons facilities, or waste storage sites or testing sites, to pay attention, to not trust what the government or private corporations are telling us with respect to how our health and how our lives may be put at risk. In a broader sense, I hope this book helps us as a country to think about the human and environmental cost of moving forward with nuclear power and potential nuclear weapons facilities. There’s a new production facility proposed at Los Alamos; do we need Rocky Flats II? There are serious health and environmental costs associated with these facilities, yet corporations and government agencies would like to have these things move forward. We need to pay attention.

This is part of an intermittent series I’m running this summer about books I like and think you should take a look at. Some of the books are directly related to this blog’s core topics; others I just think are cool. You can find my picks at #SBSBooks on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *