Reviewed by Rebecca Berry

Rocky Flats. I’ve never heard of it before. By the end of this book, my question is how have I never heard of it before?

It turns out that the area now benignly referred to as the “Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge,” located between Denver and Boulder, Colorado, was previously the “Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site” (a title which makes no sense, as far as I can tell) which before that was simply referred to as “Rocky Flats”. Few people who lived in the surrounding area knew that the plant was actually a nuclear weapons facility dedicated to producing plutonium pits, the radioactive core of each and every atomic weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Most of the plant employees didn’t even know what they were making, or the dangers. And when they did slowly learn what the plant was producing, they were reassured by the government that their work was perfectly safe, their homes were perfectly safe, and everything was perfectly safe. There was nothing to worry about.

Except that there was a lot to worry about, and most likely still is. Radioactive materials are difficult to work with, and making nuclear weapons was a messy process. By the time the plant’s production was shut down in 1989, there was over a ton and a half of plutonium unaccounted for. When a millionth of a gram can cause cancer when inhaled or ingested, this is shocking. Even more shocking was the government’s cavalier attitude regarding the missing material, especially as it seemed to be showing up in drinking water, swimming ponds, and nearby citizen’s backyards.

Full Body Burden, Kristen Iversen’s third book, tells the story of Rocky Flats from the perspective of someone who grew up in its shadow. Painstakingly researched and beautifully written, it is a stunning account of the plant and the apparent cover-up of its dangers by the government and the contractors who managed the plant. Iversen uses personal accounts as well as bold facts to create an intricate, detailed account that reads almost like a novel. She has taken a complex story and presented it in an understanding manner to those without a technical background, but without diluting the scientific details – a commendable accomplishment.

However, the book is even richer for the many personal stories, including those of her and her family. It is with a sense of foreboding that we listen to her tell us about her childhood, how her family built their wonderful new home within view of the factory, how neighborhood children played in the surrounding streams and lakes, how people started to get sick, and how Iversen herself ended up working at the factory for a time even as disturbing information about the safety of the plant was starting to come to light. As readers we all have a basic sense of the dangers of radioactive materials, and we know this story can’t end well.

Almost starting as an undercurrent, the book also focuses on Iversen’s father’s alcoholism. At times, it seems detached from everything else in the book – it is the only part that isn’t tied directly to Rocky Flats. Why include it? But by the end, we can see that the destructive consequences of her father’s alcoholism on her family mirror the destructive consequences of the secrets kept by the government regarding the Rocky Flats facility. As she makes peace with her father and the influence that his alcoholism had on her life, the people who were negatively affected by the presence of the Rocky Flats facility are being denied the acknowledgement that would begin the healing process for them, and that would perhaps help to prevent such environmental crimes from occurring again. Instead, amazingly and disturbingly, the story continues – after the cleanup effort by the DOE, which took significantly less time and money than was estimated by experts, the area has been repurposed as a wildlife refuge to include trails and recreational areas. The safety of visitors is highly disputed – independent studies often warn of still-present contamination and risk, while government-funded studies indicate, of course, that there is nothing to worry about.

Full Body Burden is timely and relevant to many of the choices we may face as a society. Even as we consider reducing our stockpile of nuclear weapons, we consider turning to nuclear technology to help provide for our incredible need for electricity. This book is a call to awareness of the dangers of nuclear technology. It is a call to ask questions, and be informed. It is about the danger of being ignorant, either by choice or naiveté. And by the end, we should be asking ourselves some important questions about the risks of nuclear technology, and whether the benefits are worth the potential, often realized, harm to ourselves and our environment.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Rebecca is a stay at home mom and lives in Plain City, a sleepy little town in central Ohio, with her husband and young son. She enjoys cooking, eating, Zumba, crafting, and of course, reading!

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Crown. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.