Thursday, August 9, 2012

Full Body Burden

(Gianna) There are usually one, maybe two books a year that I know I will be talking about for years to come. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell are two examples. I must have written about these two books a dozen times each (conservative estimate), which I am sure became annoying. Well, prepare to be annoyed yet again, I’ve found my next book. 

My old Random House boss gave me an advance copy of Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen, and said, “This is right up your alley.” I thought "Great, porn!" While no Fifty Shades of Grey, Iversen had me hooked by page three. I’m not making that up; I just double-checked: page three. “Full body burden,” by the way, refers to the amount of radioactivity which can be safely tolerated by a human body through its lifetime, and that comes up several times in the first fifty pages.

The Rocky Flats facility in Colorado.

Full Body Burden is Kristen’s story of growing up just a few miles away from Rocky Flats. I have asked several people if they know what Rocky Flats is, or had heard of it. Most people said that it sounded familiar, but not one person knew for sure what it was. In fact, in the 1950’s when the facility was being built there were many theories of what Dow Chemical was up to. Iversen’s mother thought perhaps they were making scrubbing bubbles (top secret scrubbing bubbles). Spoiler alert…they weren’t. New hires, and there would be thousands, were sworn to secrecy as employees, and in fact many workers didn’t realize what they were helping make for many months.

Plutonium trigger.  Don't lick it.
The facility at Rocky Flats made plutonium “triggers” for nuclear bombs. While it was the only plant in the country that made these triggers, there were thirteen other plants throughout the country doing various and cool top-secret government bomb building. Here in Texas, for example, the Pantex plant in Amarillo actually encased the triggers in traditional explosives, making it an official bomb. So while the workers at Rocky Flats (once they realized what exactly they were doing) could sleep at night with the thought that they weren’t really making the bomb. Oh, and Amarillo is still in the nuclear weapon and radioactive waste business. After Rocky Flats was closed down, the Pantex plant had to take their waste (by the way, Amarillo has made quite a business in general from burying waste from dozens of other states). [That explains Cadillac Ranch!] Just this April a load was buried on the border of Amarillo and New Mexico (shhhh….don’t tell New Mexico!). Anyway doesn’t matter, it’s completely safe. Seriously, it’s completely safe. Oh, that reminds me…it's not always safe. It’s hard to imagine something in Amarillo stinking more than cow shit, but alas….
Kristen Iversen

Okay, so back to the book. This book took about thirty pages to have a holy crap moment. Iversen takes us inside Rocky Flats during the 1969 fire (not the first fire, by the way) and I have to tell you, I put the book down twice because I was completely and utterly stressed out. The fire came incredibly close to a Chernobyl size disaster. Perilously close. It isn’t conclusive how far the fallout travelled but what is clear is that the government and Dow Chemical lied to workers and residents of Colorado for years. The mantra was, it's safe, it's safe, it's safe. Well, after the 1969 fire, the public began to doubt this as truth and would finally begin to ask questions and insist on answers.

Leaky drum of radioactive waste.
Don't lick it.
We are posting a Q&A with Kristen Iversen in the next couple of days, and we will get into some more about the book, but let me end with three more holy crap things I learned from Full Body Burden:
  • In the forty years that the plant was operating they produced 70,000 triggers for nuclear weapons. 
  • Leaking barrels were found out in the open at Rocky Flats. Yep, rusted out, leaking barrels which sat there for over a decade. And yes, it also contaminated the water supply. 
  • Missing plutonium. [Ooh!  Treasure hunt time!]
Kristen is going to get into more nitty gritty plutonium fun, and trust me when I tell you that you must read this book. It is absolutely unputdownable.

The effects of radiation on humans.

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