Monday, August 13, 2012

Generally Horrible Questions: Kristen Iversen

As we promised in our last post, Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden, as stepped up to the challenge of answering some of our horrible questions.  Full Body Burden tells the story of Kristen's childhood growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Flats facility near Denver, Colorado, a place where plutonium triggers for bombs and the waste associated with their production were hidden from the general public for years.  Fires at nuclear facilities?  Check.  Toxic waste improperly handled?  You betcha.  This is a story people need to read, and one of our favorite nonfiction books of 2012 (Spoiler for the end of year list?  Maybe....).  Kristen is traveling extensively to promote her book, and you can catch her at BookPeople on September 8, or at one of her other tour stops around the country. Here's your next author/victim, Kristen Iversen:

1. What book changed your life?
It’s hard to choose just one. [Other than Fifty Shades of Grey?] Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. That’s a start! [Okay, we love all three of these books.]

2. How far did you live from Rocky Flats?
When I was very young, we lived about seven miles from Rocky Flats. When my father’s law practice began to grow, we moved out to a new subdivision called Bridledale, just three miles from the plant. It was an idyllic place to live in many ways; my parents thought they were raising their kids in the perfect environment. We had dogs, cats, birds, all kinds of pets, and my sisters and brother and I were outdoors all the time. We swam in Standley Lake and the water canals, and rode our horses in the fields around the plant. We didn’t know Rocky Flats was a nuclear bomb factory. We knew nothing of plutonium and carbon tetrachloride, the two primary contaminants released into local neighborhoods and beyond.
Little Kristen, a kitty, and a pretty scary
cloud in the back ground.  Run kitty!

3. Can you give us a short description of what was going on at Rocky Flats; was your mother’s theory that they were producing Scrubbing Bubbles true?
When I was a kid, Rocky Flats was operated by Dow Chemical and the rumor in my neighborhood was that they made household cleaning products. There were other rumors about what Rocky Flats produced, everything from glass doorknobs to fertilizer. Workers weren’t allowed to talk about their work, and the plant was shrouded in secrecy. But Rocky Flats wasn’t making Scrubbing Bubbles, as my mother thought. For nearly 40 years, Rocky Flats produced more than 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs, the heart of nearly every nuclear weapon in America. Each pit cost more than $4 million, and contained enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.

4. Can you compare the two fires at the plant, the fire in 1957 and then the fire in 1969? Is it possible to know which fire expelled more plutonium into the atmosphere?
Picture from the 1969 fire.
Both fires were concealed from the public; there was no warning, no evacuation, and very little information made available to local residents afterwards. Both fires caused extensive offsite radioactive contamination in the Denver area. The 1957 fire burned through 620 filters—filters that had not been changed in four years—and significant plutonium contamination was found at a school 12 miles away. The next two years showed a jump in childhood leukemia. In 1969, when we were living in Bridledale, the radioactive cloud from the fire traveled right over our heads. We had no idea. That fire was the costliest industrial accident in the U.S. at that time, and high levels of plutonium were detected as far away as 30 miles from the site. It’s difficult to know exactly how much plutonium traveled off-site during either of these fires, as most of the measuring equipment was destroyed. All we have are estimates, and they vary widely, partly because the DOE has not been entirely forthcoming about what happened and what was released—although they will say that the 1957 fire was the most dangerous. The worst aspect of both of these fires is that we came dangerously close—unbelievably close—to a Chernobyl-like accident.

5. What is the last great book you’ve read?
I just reread Anna Karenina. I’m currently quite caught up with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. [Gianna bakes brownies for authors who pick titles we sell.  Good job.]

6. Full Body Burden begins as your family is moving into a bigger house, living the American dream. That visual is juxtaposed by the insidious work at Rocky Flats (and then of course the fire). I was only about 50 pages in but felt completely exhausted. Did you know that you would start the book this way?
I reworked that chapter so that the reader would know about Rocky Flats and the fire, even though my family has no idea. (Of course, we didn’t learn about the fire until years later.) There is something horrifying about the betrayal that happens in this opening chapter: the innocent family pursuing the American dream at the same time that their government, and corporations like Dow and Rockwell, are knowingly putting their lives at risk.

John Denver.
Plutonium free?
7. Choose only one: “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver, “Good Life” by One Republic, “Your Wild Colorado” by Johnny Cash, “Telluride” by Tim McGraw, “Man of Constant Sorrow” by Bob Dylan, or “Colorado” by The Rentals? This answer will follow you around for the rest of your life…be careful.
The answer, of course, is “Rocky Mountain High.” When we were kids, my family went on Sunday drives through the Colorado mountains. My parents were completely awed by the beauty of Colorado. While they enjoyed the scenery, my siblings and I were scrunched in the backseat of our station wagon, fussing and pinching each other. To calm the chaos, my parents would get us to start singing, with my dad taking the lead. What did we sing? “Rocky Mountain High.” I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I know the lyrics to all John Denver’s songs. [Um...we will try to get proof of this when Kristen comes to BookPeople…stay tuned.  And yes, we will be including the Muppets Christmas album in the quiz.]

8. Jim Stone is one of the heroes in this book, a whistle blower. Will you talk a bit about his concerns?
Jim Stone was a long-time employee of Rocky Flats, beginning in the 1950s. One of his first concerns was the decision to locate the plant on land immediately upwind from Denver. There was an error in the engineering report—it was based on wind patterns from Stapleton Airport, on the other side of Denver, rather than the Rocky Flats site itself. The location could not have been worse. Fast-moving chinook winds travel down from the mountains and across the Rocky Flats site, picking up contaminants and carrying them directly into the Denver metro area. Jim Stone noticed the error. He was ignored. [The same wind patterns carry contaminants from Liz's house to Gianna's.]

Stone’s other concerns included pondcrete, an unsuccessful attempt by Rocky Flats to stabilize plutonium by mixing it with concrete. More than 8,000 pondcrete blocks, the size of small refrigerators, were produced and allowed to stand out in the open. They never solidified. Workers called it “The Jelly Factory.” Radioactive material seeped into the soil and water and traveled into local neighborhoods.

Jim Stone reported many other problems as well. He was eventually fired. He won a whistleblower lawsuit, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court, based on a small technicality.

Valley of the Dolls.  Nice.
9. I have read ____ and I am so ashamed.
Valley of the Dolls. I stole it from under my mother’s bed when I was a kid. Delicious, naughty reading for a good church-going girl. [Possibly the best answer we’ve ever gotten to this question.]

10. Could the cancer clusters, and other chronic health issues such chronic fatigue in the areas around Rocky Flats, be just coincidence? What about the cancer in children after the 1957 fire?
If you ask the Department of Energy, or even the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, they will say that there is no connection between illnesses and the plant. No one doubts the fact that plutonium from Rocky Flats traveled off-site—that has been proven again and again. The debate centers on how much exposure to plutonium is “safe.” The DOE (previously the Atomic Energy Commission) stated as early as 1945 that a millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer. And yet, practically in the same breath, they say that the levels of plutonium in areas around Rocky Flats are not harmful. This is a kind of government double-speak that I find very troublesome. We’ve seen the same thing in Japan, with the Fukushima accident. 
2005 "clean up" at Rocky Flats

Many studies have confirmed cancer and health problems in areas around Rocky Flats. In 1996, Richard Clapp of Boston University found high rates of cancer, particularly lung and bone cancer. He wrote that the area shows “a continuing excess of cancer and ongoing health effects.” And, as you note, this was demonstrated by a jump in childhood leukemia in the two years following the 1957 fire.

I believe the government and corporations who run nuclear facilities are dealing with this in a way similar to the tobacco industry, years ago. They say, okay, maybe there’s a higher rate of cancer, but prove to us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there’s a direct link to Rocky Flats (or any other nuclear facility—it’s the same story in other areas around the country). The burden of proof falls on the victim.

And it’s not just the government, or old-style Cold War secrecy. The area around Rocky Flats is prime real estate. It’s a beautiful location, just minutes from Boulder and Denver. There’s a lot of money at risk for business and the homebuilding industry when people start asking questions about levels of plutonium in their yards and gardens.

11. What was your job when you worked at the Rocky Flats plant?
I worked in the administration area, typing weekly reports that were sent to Washington, D.C. and other DOE sites around the country. I worked with various managers and project managers and wrote about problems and spills and “incidents.” No one ever used the word “accident.” There were some successes, too, of course, as the plant tried to move from shutdown to potential re-start to cleanup, or a cleanup of sorts.

12. Tell us about the FBI and EPA raid of Rocky Flats. What became of the case?
Based on tips from workers, and photos taken by an FBI plane indicating a strong possibility that radioactive materials were flowing from the site, in 1989 the FBI and the EPA raided Rocky Flats. The raid led to a two-year grand jury investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the grand jury wanted to indict several Rockwell and Department of Energy officials, and hold the plant accountable for past and ongoing radioactive and toxic contamination. Instead, in a surprising turn of events, U.S. attorney and Department of Justice prosecutor Mike Norton refused to sign the indictments. A deal was cut with Rockwell: not a single company or government official was indicted, despite the fact that more than 400 environmental violations had occurred for decades. Dumping and incineration charges were dropped. In exchange, the company agreed to plead guilty to criminal violations of the federal hazardous waste law and the Clean Water Act, admitting to five felonies and five misdemeanors, and pay an $18.5 million fine (a smaller amount, by the way, than what the corporation had collected in bonuses for running Rocky Flats and meeting production quotas for that single year). The jurors were incensed and wrote their own grand jury report, feeling that the public needed to know about past offenses and—most importantly—ongoing contamination. That report was sealed by the judge, and the full report remains sealed to the present day.

13. In 1995, it was stated that cleanup would take over 70 years. That turned out to be closer to 10 yrs. That’s not suspicious, is it?
That’s the first good reason not to let your first-grader go on a field trip to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The original estimate to clean up the 6,000-plus acre site, back in 1995 when I worked at the plant, was that it would take $36 billion and 70 years, and the DOE wasn’t sure they had the technology to do it. There was never any discussion of cleaning up areas beyond the plant boundaries. That figure was nearly impossible (and remember, we’re talking taxpayer dollars). The company Kaiser-Hill came along and said they could do the cleanup in less than 10 years, for a final cost of less than $7 billion.

How did they do it? It all depends on how you define “clean.” Yes, a great deal of plutonium was moved offsite during the cleanup. But much remains. The cleanup agreement allows 50 picocuries per gram of soil in the top three feet of soil; 1,000 to 7,000 picocuries per gram from 3 to 6 feet; and essentially no limit below 6 feet. Rocky Flats had more than 800 buildings, many of them built underground, with extensive pipes and tunnels running between the buildings to transport materials.

In the words of many former workers and scientists, Rocky Flats has not been cleaned up, it’s been covered up. 1,300 acres are so profoundly contaminated that they can never be open to the public. (Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. It’s going to be around for awhile.) The rest of the site is slated to open for public recreation including hiking, biking, and possibly hunting.

Plutonium has been found in cattle, deer, rabbits, and mice, and there’s plutonium uptake in the grass and trees. I’d sure think twice before heading out for a picnic. Some scientists and environmentalists believe the site should be declared a “national sacrifice zone” and remain permanently closed to the public.
[Still think Liz should take me on a picnic.]
I glow in the dark.

14. I have not read ___ and I am so ashamed.
I’ve been stuck on page ten of Finnegan’s Wake for two decades. [Many say it takes a few decades to really get to the meat of this novel]

15. Liz, an avid nature lover, is really excited that part of Rocky Flats is now an animal refuge, and soon more land will be made available for hiking, camping, school trips and deer hunting. How yummy will that deer taste?
A deer contaminated with plutonium would likely taste the same as an uncontaminated deer. You can’t see, smell, or taste plutonium. And it’s hard to keep those deer on the Rocky Flats site. They meander down into the fields near the housing subdivisions, or head up into the mountains. You wouldn’t necessarily have to go deer hunting directly on the Rocky Flats site to end up with something on your dinner plate that had a little extra seasoning.
When I worked at Rocky Flats, there were plenty of jokes about plutonium in food. People would say, “Watch out for the guacamole in the cafeteria!” Later, there turned out to be some truth to the rumor, although it wasn’t the guacamole. [Liz has always been rather suspicious of avocados.]

16. MUF--WTF?
One of the more astonishing acronyms I came across when I was working at Rocky Flats was “MUF.” I eventually learned that “MUF” stood for “Missing Unaccounted For” plutonium. How much plutonium was “lost” at Rocky Flats? In 1994, the Department of Energy admitted to roughly 3,050 pounds lost between 1952 and 1993. That’s a rather astonishing figure when you consider the fact that one millionth of a gram can cause cancer.

How did plutonium escape the plant? There were fires, and a waste-burning incinerator, and leaks into the soil and streams. One of the most egregious examples is the 903 Pad, where more than five thousand oil drums filled with radioactive waste stood out in the open for more than 11 years. The bottoms rusted out, and material leaked into the soil.

The DOE has tried to account for some of this missing plutonium by noting that in the past records were poorly kept or incomplete, and some of the MUF may be due to administrative errors. I’m not sure this is comforting. [It's not.]

17. Standley Lake is still a water source for the area, and it’s also fun to swim in, right?
Standley Lake is a great place to swim or waterski. And it’s very conveniently located, surrounded by housing subdivisions, with a great view of the mountains. Just be careful not to kick up the sand or stir up any sediment. Plutonium is a heavy metal and as it’s carried into the lake, it sinks into the sediment, where, according to officials, it’s supposed to stay. Unless someone steps in it.
Standley Lake. Not your average swimming hole.

18. Liz or Gianna? 
Okay! Liz. [You’ll regret it!]

19. What is the most shocking thing that you discovered while researching Full Body Burden
I am shocked, and continue to be shocked, by how little people know about Rocky Flats. Few people around the country know the story, and even in Colorado—especially in Colorado—few people know much, if anything, about Rocky Flats.

The story of Rocky Flats is hugely important to Colorado, to the country, to the world. It’s not just a story of secrecy, injustice, and environmental contamination, but it raises all sorts of questions about how the operators of nuclear facilities—and I’m talking about nuclear power plants as well as nuclear weapons sites—may put our lives and our health at risk. Can we trust them to be truthful and transparent? Can we trust these facilities to be safe?

Rocky Flats, sadly, is not an unusual story or situation. There are similar stories at other sites around the U.S., including Hanford, Fernald, Oak Ridge, and the Savannah River Site. Internationally, there’s Mayak in Russia, the “sister” of Rocky Flats, and of course Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The book is attracting a lot of interest in the UK and in Japan. At a recent anti-nuke rally in Tokyo, a woman carried a sign with the cover of Full Body Burden on it.

I wrote a book about what happened in my backyard, but I’m really talking about everyone’s backyard. We’re all in this together. We need to pay attention.
[Liz just buries bodies in her backyard.]
Kristen Iversen

20. You are the editor of The Pinch, one of the most respected literary journals around. Why are literary journals so important and what is the secret to the success of The Pinch, which has been around for over 30 years?
I feel quite passionate about literary journals. It's been increasingly difficult for small journals to stay in print. Literary journals are dedicated to the art of writing, to the leading edge of what's happening in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, in ways that set them apart from the rest of the publishing world. They find and nurture talent; they take risks; they create a space for engaged, ongoing dialogue about writing and literature. The Pinch (previously called River City) has been successful only because so many people--students and faculty and our many readers and supporters--have been willing to devote time and energy, with little or no compensation, to the pursuit of excellence in the art of writing. It's as simple as that. Working with The Pinch has been a great privilege for me, and I'm very proud of all the writers we've published over the years.  


  1. Kristen's book is horrifying. But I'm glad that she is a John Denver fan. Somewhere in my parent's apartment lives a cassette tape on which my sisters and I sing Country Roads. Two of the three of us cannot sing. I'm one of the two. I also saw John Denver in concert 3 times. If Kristen and I meet, we will have lots in common.

  2. Some of the workers from US government sites migrate into commerical nuclear power, and from talking with a few of them, it sounds like the electricity-generating side of the nuclear equation is more heavily regulated (by a different body - the NRC, versus DOE). Not to imply everything is perfect, though.

    If you would like an easy-to-read look at daily life in a US nuclear plant, and what a bad day might be like, my novel "Rad Decision" tells this story from an insider's perspective. The book is free online (no advertisements or sponsors) - just Google the title or see my homepage. As a bonus, the plant design and bad day resemble Fukushima. Rad Decision has garnered a lot of positive reviews from readers but little attention from the media - they're busy, I guess.