Full Body Burden
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” It’s the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and—unknown to those who lived there—tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.
It’s also a book about the destructive power of secrets—both family and government. Her father’s hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed)—best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.
But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 “Mother’s Day Fire,” in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited, and—despite the desperate efforts of firefighters—came perilously close to a “criticality,” the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called “incidents.”
And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism—a detailed and shocking account of the government’s sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents’ vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers—from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job. Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.
Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, Colorado and is the author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, winner of the 2013 Colorado Book Award and the Reading the West Book Award in Nonfiction. Full Body Burden was chosen one of the Best Books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association and Best Book about Justice by The Atlantic, and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. She is also the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award and the Barbara Sudler Award for Nonfiction, and a textbook, Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.
- Why should I read this book?
- How can I participate in the Common Reading Experience if I’m not a first-year student? How can I get a copy of the book?
- What is Rocky Flats?
- Why is the story of Full Body Burden so important?
- What messages should be taken from the story?
Why should I read this book?
It is important that you and others read this book. It addresses real issues on ethical decision making and medical advances through research. You will learn how these issues impact the advancement of our global society. As the author states, this book “brings together many disparate fields…and allows them to explore the real-world consequences of intellectual discoveries…bringing together health, community, family, ethics, religion, science, storytelling, history, business, law, and humanity.”
How can I participate in the Common Reading Experience if I’m not a first-year student? How can I get a copy of the book?
While the Common Reading Experience engages the incoming first-year students, participation from all other students and members of the university community is welcome. Other faculty will integrate parts of the book and its issues into their classes. Both undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to participate and can attend the public events and join in the discussion across campus. You can purchase a copy of the book at the USF Bookstore. Additional copies are available from the USF Library in paperback and e-book editions.
What is Rocky Flats?
Rocky Flats was a vital part of the U.S. nuclear weapons program located near Denver, Colorado. Few people knew it existed or what the plant produced. From 1952 to 1989, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant produced more than 70,000 plutonium pits or “triggers” for nuclear bombs. Each pit contained enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.
The plant was veiled in secrecy. Colorado residents were kept unaware of the plant’s activities. Workers were not allowed to talk about their work.
There was extensive radioactive and toxic contamination in the air, water, and soil, both on-site and off-site. In addition to plutonium, off-site contaminants included tritium, beryllium, and dioxin, as well as between 1,100 and 5,400 tons of carbon tetrachloride.
Residential areas around Rocky Flats, particularly south and east of the plant (including the neighborhood where author Kristen Iversen grew up), were contaminated by Rocky Flats.
Why is the story of Full Body Burden so important?
The author believes that people need to be more aware of the dangerous health threats that nuclear weapons facilities cause, such as those caused by the Rocky Flats facility. Not only is there the danger of the effects from nuclear waste for exposure to radiation through close proximity to the facility, but the negative effects are extreme and long-lasting, increasing their threat to people even after the facility is closed and “cleaned up.” The threats to our health, environment and wildlife are also extreme, broad-ranging and long-lasting. The book documents the lack of awareness that people had for this in the past and points to the need to educate others for the present.
The legal processes to protect people from the known effects of nuclear waste are often thwarted for various reasons, including those related to monetary gain and politics. The book documents the many obstacles placed in the way of well-meaning citizens who wanted to protect themselves and others from the nuclear facility and its plutonium, and the author attests to similar obstacles today. It is also important to note how world events, such as the Cold War, alter people’s perspectives on particular issues, shaping our collective attitudes and actions. The threats that are discussed by Iversen are still evident in our present world, and new generations continue to deal with these same important issues.
What messages should be taken from the story?
The message of the negative aspects of the nuclear weapons facility and clear evidence of its life-threatening effects is a very important lesson for future generations to learn. Similarly, questioning the authority of the government when it deceives the people is an important illustration seen from this story. When governments, bureaucracy and big business aim to protect their interests over the lives of the people, lessons from social activism and political actions need to be considered from both local and global perspectives. Topics from environmentalism, geophysics, and other emerging scientific fields are examined by the investigations presented in this book, and the book also connects to political science, sociology, history, and military sciences. The lessons learned from the book are presented for readers in explore and relate them to the present and future.
In the News
The following questions were taken directly from Kristen Iversen’s website:
- In this book, author Kristen Iversen weaves together two narratives: a memoir of growing up in Arvada and a historical account of Rocky Flats and the nuclear industry. What effect did moving back and forth between the two storylines have on your experience of reading the book? Did you find one of the two storylines more compelling than the other? Can you think of a different way the book might have been structured?
- What themes are shared by the two narratives in the book? How are they expressed in each narrative?
- When Kristen is a child, her mother tells her, “I think [Rocky Flats] makes cleaning supplies. Scrubbing Bubbles or something.” (p. 12) Later, when protesters rally against the plant, her parents ridicule the protests. By the end of the book, however, Kristen has worked at the plant and joined the opposition to it. What are some key moments in the evolution of her views about Rocky Flats?
- One of the most dramatic passages in the book depicts Stan and Bill fighting the “Mother’s Day Fire” at Rocky Flats (pp. 26–38). Iversen describes the scene in detail, from the “burning globes” that crash from the ceiling to the underpass beneath the glove boxes. What parts of the scene were most vivid or memorable for you?
- While horseback riding one day, Iversen is disturbed when she comes across a dead cow at the edge of the lake near her house, and she describes the mountains nearby as “a dark, heavy presence, a watching shadow (p. 71).” The discovery of the cow seems like an ominous portent. Are there other examples of foreshadowing in the book?
- From Fluffy to Tonka to the wild rabbits and deer at the Rocky Flats site to the deformed chickens, animals are a constant presence in the book. What role do animals play in the storyline? How were pets and animals important to Kristen’s household, and why?
- When Kristen was fourteen years old, her father crashed the family car. Afterward he said he had swerved to avoid an oncoming car, but it was clear to her that he had been drinking. Since her parents did not seek medical treatment for her, it was not until years later that she found out she had broken her neck. She writes, “We never speak of the accident again. Silence is an easy habit for a family or a community. This is just for us to know. Eventually we’ll forget this ever happened.” (p. 110) At what other times do we see her family’s “habit” of silence? How does it affect her? Can you think of a relationship in your own life in which you and a close friend or family member never talked about something vital to both of you, or pretended that it had never happened?
- At one point, Kristen’s mother takes the family to see a psychiatrist and each member of the family draws a picture of home (pp. 120–121). The passage reveals key elements of the family dynamic. What did you learn about each family member’s coping mechanisms from this scene? In what different ways did Kristen and her siblings respond to their father’s alcoholism and to the secrets of Rocky Flats as they were revealed over time?
- In 1978, protesters were tried for trespassing and attempting to obstruct the activity of Rocky Flats. They base their defense on a little-known “choice of evils” law in Colorado. The law says that an illegal act is justified if it is done to prevent a greater, imminent evil or crime. The judge decides that the law isn’t applicable in their situation (p. 158). Do you agree with the judge’s reasoning? Have you ever been in a situation where this law might have been applicable?
- Immediately after Kristen learns that Mark has died, her parents argue and then her father knocks on her bedroom door. “How can I let him in when a thousand times he has cast me out?” she asks herself (p. 166), and she does not let him in. Do you think she was right to protect herself from her father? If she had let him in, what do you imagine they might have said to each other?
- There are several passages in which Rocky Flats workers are contrasted with the activists seeking to shut the plant down, such as the scene with well-to-do protester Ann White and working class security guard Debbie Clark (pp. 193–194). How did the two groups feel about each other? Were there any similarities or sympathies between the two groups?
- Full Body Burden contains many surprising facts about Rocky Flats and about radioactive contamination, such as the fact that a single microgram of plutonium is a potentially lethal dose (p. 24) or that in 1970 there was no emergency response plan to protect the public in the event of a major disaster at Rocky Flats (p. 67). What fact made the deepest impression on you?
- The poem at the end of the book, “Plutonian Ode” by Allen Ginsberg, was written on the occasion of the 1978 Rocky Flats protest and specifically refers to Rockwell, Rocky Flats, and other nuclear weapons facilities. In it, Ginsberg describes plutonium as a “dreadful presence,” a “delusion of metal empires,” and as “matter that renders Self oblivion.” Why then does he call the poem an “ode”? How does the poem reinforce the message of the book?
- Do you live near a nuclear site or nuclear power plant? If so, has your state or local government informed you of the potential risks of living near such a facility, or about emergency response plans in the event of a serious accident involving radioactive contamination?
- CURRENT ISSUE: During the Cold War, an impenetrable veil existed between the nuclear weapons industry and the general public. The U.S. government considered this secrecy necessary for national security. Do you think there is any way the government could have communicated more to the general public without jeopardizing the nation’s safety?
- CURRENT ISSUE: For many years the nuclear weapons industry was exempted from environmental regulation because national defense was considered a higher priority. This book reveals the tragic consequences of that exemption. Are there situations in which you believe it is justified to exempt the government, certain industries, or private companies from the law?
- CURRENT ISSUE: We live in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media, as well as organizations that seek transparency in government, such as WikiLeaks. Do you think the level of secrecy maintained by the DOE and the operators of Rocky Flats during much of the plant’s history could be maintained today?
- In 2001, Congress passed the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Act. By 2007, 4465 acres of the Rocky Flats site were transferred to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (more information). Research the development of Rocky Flats from a nuclear weapons production facility into a wildlife refuge. What events led to the development of the refuge? Why did it take six years for the site to be handed over to the US Fish and Wildlife Services? What are the ethical dilemmas involved in making the site of a former nuclear weapons plant into a wildlife refuge?
- Research the history of nuclear plant disasters in the United States. How is the case of Rocky Flats similar to or different from other cases? Are there better examples worldwide that demonstrate the dangers associated with having a nuclear meltdown? What are the short-term and long-term effects of a nuclear disaster? Does the potential for harm outweigh the benefits of nuclear energy?
- Investigate the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred in 2011 following a tsunami. What led to the meltdown of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant? How has the government of Japan and the Tokyo Electric Power Company dealt with the clean up? How has the rest of the world responded? What are the expected long term effects of the nuclear reactors’ meltdown for Japan and the world? What controversies were raised by the incident?
- Research the effects of alcoholism on the family unit? How does the disease impact members of the family? What lesson are children growing up in alcoholic homes taught? What are the long term effects of alcohol abuse on the family and its individual members?
- An important theme in Full Body Burden is secrecy. What role did secrecy play in Iversen’s life? How did the secrecy surrounding Rocky Flats impact the community, employees, and the government? What are some of the consequences of maintaining secrecy for individuals, families, communities, states, or the nation? How does the maintenance of secrecy impact the individual and/or the public when the truth finally emerges?
- In 2005, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued a public health assessment for the Rocky Flats site and surrounding area (full report). The report concluded that off-site soil and water contamination levels have no apparent public health hazard for past, current, and future exposures. If you were a citizen working and living in the area, would this report be enough to convince you that your health and/or the health of your children is not at risk? Why or why not?
- Write a book review – after discussing the components of a good book review, have students write one of their own for Full Body Burden. Assign a word limit since many published book reviews are limited to a specific word count.
- Create a blog – create a blog for the class and have students post their thoughts and/or questions while they are reading the book.
- Debate – divide the class into groups and assign each group a position on one of the issues raised in the book. Once students have had enough time to fully prepare an argument for their position, hold a debate.
- Research paper – have students write a research paper or give a presentation to the class.
- Group activity – divide students into groups and provide each group with specific discussion questions. Once groups have had the opportunity to discuss the questions, bring the class back together and have each group report on their discussions.
Beth Ann Fennelly for Orion magazine
Fennelly, B.A. (2012). Reviews Full body burden: Growing up in the nuclear shadow of Rocky Flats.
Orion Magazine. Retrieved from here.
DWIGHT GARNER for The New York Times
Garner, D. (2012, September 27). Growing up in a town of weak beer and toxic water [Review of
the book Full Body Burden]. The New York Times. Retrieved from here.
Maggie Koerth-Baker for BoingBoing.net
Koerth-Baker, M. (2012, July 17). Full body burden: Memoir about family secrets, government
secrets, and the risks of industrial pollution. BoingBoing.Net. Retrieved from here.
Melanie McGrath for The Telegraph
McGrath, M. (2012, July 18). Full body burden by Kristen Iversen: Review. The Telegraph. Retrieved
Full Body Burden Resources
Q&A With Kristen Iversen
Biographile. (2013, June 4). After the aftermath: A Q&A with Kristen Iversen, author of Full body
burden. Biographile.Retrieved from here.
Audio-only interview with Kristen Iversen
Gross, T. (2012, June 12). Under the ‘nuclear shadow’ of Colorado’s Rocky Flats. NPR Fresh Air.
Retrieved from here. – this is an audio only interview with Kristen Iversen conducted by NPR.
Interview with Kristen Iversen
Kircher, C. (2013). An interview with Kristen Iversen. The Writer’s Chronicle. Retrieved from
Brown, S.C., Schonbeck, M.F., McClure, D., Baron, A.E., Navidi, W.C., Byers, T., & Ruttenber, A.J.
(2004). Lung cancer and internal lung doses among plutonium workers at the Rocky Flats Plant: A case-control study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 160(2), 163-172. Retrieved from here.
Iversen, K. (2012, June 11). The Dirty Secrets of Rocky Flats The legacy of Colorado’s nuclear plant
is radioactive waste-and public distrust of government. NATION, 294(24), 23-26.
Available through the USF Library and EBSCOhost NATION archives.
Shrock, P. (2014). The Rocky Flats plea bargain: A case study in the prosecution of organizational
crime in the US nuclear weapons complex. Journal of Crime and Justice, (ahead of print), 1-18.
Available through the USF Library and Taylor & Francis Online Journal of Crime and Justice archives.
Supreme Court of the United States Blog. (2012). Cook v. Rockwell International Corp. Retrieved
from here. – the full briefs and documents on the court case (Cook v. Rockewell) mentioned in Iversen’s book.
Relevant Books at USF Library
Ackland, L. (1999). Making a real killing: Rocky Flats and the nuclear West. Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press.
Fukushima Nuclear Accident, The Independent Investigation on the. (2014). The Fukushima Daiichi
nuclear power states disaster: Investigating myth and reality. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Johnston, B.R. & School for Advanced Research (Santa Fe, N.M.). (2007). Half-lives and half-truths:
Confronting the radioactive legacies of the Cold War. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press.
Takada, J. (2005). Nuclear hazards in the world: Field studies on affected populations and
environments. Tokyo: Kodansha.
- Silkwood — 1983
- Erin Brockovich – 2000
- A Civil Action – 1998
- Chernobyl Heart – 2003
- Dark Circle – 1982
- ABC News Nightline: The Most Dangerous Building in America – 2007
Chemical Body Burden TOXIC SOUP Documentary
A short video that explains the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 through interviews with individuals from the Environmental Working Group, the Government Accountability Office, the National Resources Defense Council, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Full Body Burden book trailer
Kristen Iversen at First Year Experience Random House Luncheon
Iversen speaks about her book and her life growing up near Rocky Flats.
Nightline 01/08: Inside Fukushima: Beyond the ‘No Go’ Zone
Cecilia Vega goes behind the ‘No Go’ zone in Fukushima and reports on the damage and the clean-up.
Practices of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant
Tom Cochran, the Director of the Nuclear Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, narrates a documentary of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Plant. He explains what the plant did and the types of chemicals they used and/or produced.
Rocky Flats: Life in the Shadow of a Nuclear Bomb Factory
A short video narrated by Iversen discussing the book and the nuclear weapons plant.
The Truth about Nuclear Waste Disposal Documentary
A documentary that examines nuclear waste disposal near the UK.
The “One Book – Global Connections” common reading experience is supported in the Academic Foundations (AF) course through guided discussions and assignments that connect learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. These curriculum initiatives are intended to complement other courses that are participating in the common reading experience. UE students will attend campus events designed to expand the scope of the book to global application. Through critical thinking and exploration of personal values, students will gain a broader understanding of the ethical issues presented in this book and the associated implications for the global community.
First Year Composition
The First Year Composition (FYC) program supports the common reading experience by utilizing the text as a generative invention tool throughout the semester. Students will begin the semester by thinking critically about the variety of issues raised by the book and writing a response to these issues in a “First Day Diagnostic” writing prompt. At the end of the semester, students will be invited to revise their answers using the skills they have practiced and developed in ENC 1101 and ENC 1102, and exemplary essays will be “published” (with the permission of the student) to the FYC website. The book will also be used as a basis for guided discussion, a source for examples related to projects and assignments, and as a common resource for daily classroom activities. Through an exploration of the issues at stake in this narrative and the rhetorical choices made by the author, students will gain an understanding of the impact writing can have on individual lives and broader, global communities.