It wasn’t until the late 1970s that most people in the Denver metro area began really noticing Rocky Flats, that well-guarded, bland and seemingly innocuous U.S. government facility sprawling on the grasslands just east of the highway from Boulder to Golden.
Kristen Iverson’s family was no different. Nestled tightly in the bosom of the American Dream, circa early 1960s, neither they nor their neighbors ever gave much thought to what was happening just upwind. The kids ran pell-mell across empty fields and swam their horses in nearby Standley Lake.
Eventually, the secret of the plant was out: it was the government’s manufacturer of plutonium triggers for the nation’s growing nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. And as radioactive stuff is wont to do, the danger managed to escape and filter into the environment, unbeknownst to oblivious local residents. Incredibly dangerous fires in 1957 and 1969 were all but hushed up and when the plant was finally shuttered, it became clear that the entire surrounding environment was contaminated with plutonium, tiny particles of which could cause cancer and death; that included the mud at the bottom of the lake where Iverson, her siblings and friends played.
But the secret got out and by the time protesters were carrying “Hello no, we won’t glow!” signs and surrounding the plant with massive human chains, its days were numbered. The fact that the endgame included the federal government raiding its own facility, in 1989, is testament to the twisted history of the place.
“Full Body Burden” is an excellent lay history of the plant that smoothly weaves a wealth of information into an engaging narrative. Long-time Boulder residents will know at least the bare outlines of much of what went down, but Iverson will renew readers’ astonishment at the fact that a comprehensive grand-jury report on troubles and cover-ups at the now defunct-plant remains under court-ordered seal and jurors face incarceration if they speak about what they heard.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the site is supposed become a wildlife refuge and recreation area. No less than the grand-jury documents, the government plans to keep the land’s plutonium-contaminated secrets to itself. The other third? Too contaminated for safe public use.
“There will be no markers at Rocky Flats,” writes Iverson, director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Memphis. “What lies beneath will remain.”
The book is also a quietly moving memoir, describing how Iverson’s seemingly idyllic experiences growing up near the plant were as tainted by more visible problems such as an alcoholic father, as well as the curious fact of her employment there years later.
Both strands — memoir and investigation — work on their own terms. But as with the increasingly crowded personal-memoir field, at times the braiding of the topical and the personal seems somewhat forced.
But Iverson is a beautiful writer, and the family history will pull many readers more deeply into a tragic Cold War tale that few would otherwise have read.