PUBLISHERS PASSED OVER Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden, until the near-nuclear winter in Japan last year made fallout relevant again. This is absurd—to think that radioactive pollution succumbs to fad. It will outlive even the colonies we will have to build on the moon. Iversen's carefully pruned memoir layers the story of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado, a cold-war darling that made plutonium triggers, over her life in its "nuclear shadow." Her greatest feat, beyond her clear exposition of decades of scientific mismanagement, is to explain our capacity to ignore what seems too deeply embedded to fix.
Iversen grew up in a planned community adjacent to Rocky Flats, played childhood games downwind of it, and even did clerical work at the plant as an adult. In some ways her youth was idyllic—she had a pony, to put it briefly. On the other hand, her father was an alcoholic, providing for the family through an increasingly precarious law practice. Her mother was an onlooker to his gradual decline, sympathetic to his weaknesses, but unable to stand up to him.
Rocky Flats offers the same kind of paradox. Set amid picturesque mountains, the factory was once the economic engine for the surrounding Denver suburbs. However, the plant poisoned, to small or great extent, everything that came close to it. As little as one millionth of a gram of plutonium can be cancerous if internalized, though the effects may not be felt for decades. Yet, in its 40 years of operation, Rocky Flats lost almost 3,000 pounds of the stuff, simply filed as "Material Unaccounted For." The concept of a failed protector binds the Rocky Flats narrative to Iversen's, and she build a great rhythm by letting the two tales go blow-for-blow.
Iversen uses mini-biographies of Rocky Flats workers to demystify the plant's operations. As soldiers of the cold war, most clocked in proudly. Meanwhile, managers carefully sealed them into their one stop on the assembly line, and hid or refuted environmental impacts. Iversen's biggest failing is in not also personalizing the blame-bearing managers and government regulators, who I could only imagine as gray flannel suits.
Though topically linked to events at Fukushima, the story of Rocky Flats actually seems more in line with the recent financial meltdown; it was spurred by greed and negligence, not panic or an "act of god." However, it is too scary to believe that our nuclear waste is as poorly guarded as our banks.