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.)