Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

by Kristen Iversen

Hardcover, 400 pages
June 12, 2012
Kristen Iversen spent years in Europe looking for things to
write about before realizing that biggest story she’d ever cover
was in the backyard where she grew up. Iversen spent her
childhood in Colorado close to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons
factory, playing in fields and swimming in lakes and streams
that it now appears were contaminated with plutonium. Later, as
a single mother, Iversen worked at the plant but knew little of
its environmental and health risks until she saw a feature about
it on Nightline.

Iversen’s new book, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the
Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, is in part a memoir about
her troubled family, and also an investigation into the
decades-long environmental scandal involving nuclear
contamination in and around Rocky Flats. Weapons production
ended there after FBI agents raided the plant in 1989. Its
operators later pleaded guilty to criminal violations of
environmental law.

But during Iversen’s childhood, the people living near Rocky
Flats had no idea that plutonium bomb components were being
constructed so close to their homes — or that radioactive
waste was leaking into the surrounding environment. The
plant’s day-to-day activities were highly secretive. So
secretive, in fact, that Iversen’s family didn’t know
what their neighbors who worked at the plant did for a

“The rumor in the neighborhood was that they were making
cleaning supplies,” says Iversen. “My mother thought they were
making Scrubbing Bubbles.”

Instead, the plant was manufacturing balls of plutonium that
were integral to creating nuclear chain reactions. Workers at
the plant manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that
were attached to stainless steel boxes. The plutonium was then
shipped to a facility in Texas, where it was encased in
conventional explosives and made into bombs.

Iversen notes that plutonium, which contains alpha particles,
is extremely dangerous to humans if ingested or inhaled.

“If it is inhaled into the lungs — and very, very tiny
particles can be inhaled into the lungs — it can lodge in
lung tissue and it creates a constant and ongoing source
of radiation,” says Iversen. “So that’s where we see lung
cancer and various other health effects.”

Accidents At Rocky Flats
Over the course of Rocky Flats’ history, there were several
accidents that sent radioactive particulates into the
atmosphere. On several occasions, barrels of radioactive waste
were found to be leaking into open fields. And fires in 1957 and
1969 at the plant sent plumes of radioactive material over the
Denver metro area.

“One of the most important things about the fire [in 1969] that
we didn’t know about was that it burned out all of the filters
and the measuring equipment so we still don’t know how much
plutonium and other radioactive material was released into the

” says Iversen. “But the really dramatic part is
that the building got so hot that it started to melt the roof.
The roof started to rise like a marshmallow bubble, and if that
roof had actually been breached, we would have had an accident
of catastrophic effect, something along the lines of Chernobyl,
in the Denver area and beyond.”

Even though the event was not catastrophic on the scale of
Chernobyl, it was still the costliest industrial accident to
ever occur in the United States. The cleanup from the accident
took over two years.

“Plutonium particles were found at an elementary school 12
miles away,” says Iversen. “There was plutonium and radioactive
particles found throughout the Denver metro area.”

The fire led to safety upgrades on site at Rocky Flats. It also
increased public scrutiny. Throughout the 1970s, protesters
began to flock to Rocky Flats to bring attention to the
environmental and health hazards posed by the plant. They began
asking questions about where the radioactive contamination at
the plant had originated.

“And the Department of Energy admitted, ‘Yes, there is
contamination off-site but it’s not from the 1969 fire. It’s
from a 1957 fire. We don’t know how much contamination escaped
from that fire,’ ” says Iversen. And the Department of Energy
also said, ” ‘It’s also from barrels, on what’s been called the
903 pad.’ There were 3,000 barrels filled with radioactive
material, liquid and solid waste — primarily plutonium
— and they stood out in the open for 11 years from
1959 to 1970. And the bottoms of the barrels rusted out
and all of that stuff got into the local water supply.”

The protests continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in
the late ’80s, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI
began working with whistle-blowers to investigate unsafe
conditions at the plant. The FBI started flying covertly over
the plant at night to measure airborne contamination. In 1989,
after several years of investigation, the FBI and the EPA raided
Rocky Flats.

“I believe it was the first and only time two government
agencies have raided another,” says Iversen. “The EPA and the
FBI raided the Department of Energy [which controlled the
operation of the plant].”
[Kristen Iversen is director of the M.F.A. program in
creative writing at the University of Memphis and
editor-in-chief of the literary journal The Pinch.]
courtesy of the author
Kristen Iversen is director of the M.F.A. program in
creative writing at the University of Memphis and
editor-in-chief of the literary journal The Pinch.

The Grand Jury Investigation And Findings

After the raid, a grand jury investigation opened to examine
what, if any, criminal wrongdoing took place at the site. The
grand jury recommended indictments for the Department of Energy
officials controlling the site as well for as Rockwell
officials, who were contracted to run day-to-day operations.

“But what happened was that a deal was cut with Rockwell,” says
Iversen. “There were no indictments and the grand jurors, after
having met for 21 months, were infuriated that there were no
indictments and there was not going to be any responsibility
here or any transparency for what was actually happening.”

Rockwell did plead guilty to several environmental crimes and
agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine, says Iversen. But, she
notes, many felt like that was not enough.

“The fine, although it was a substantial fine at the time, was
almost exactly the same as the bonus that Rockwell received for
that particular year for meeting production quotas,” she says.
“At Rocky Flats was always the highest priority and safety of
workers always took second place to that. … Part of the reason
that there were no indictments was that it was argued that these
were officials with the Department of Energy and Rockwell who
were operating within instructions from the Department of Energy
— that is, that these environmental violations were sort
of OK because what is most important is the production of
plutonium [parts for bombs].”

Rocky Flats halted plutonium bomb component production in 1990
and closed two years later because of safety concerns for
workers and because the U.S. stopped making nuclear bombs when
the Cold War ended. The DOE estimated that it would take 70
years and $30 billion to clean up the pollution at the site, but
the agency accelerated those plans — and the cleanup was
finished in less than 10 years.

It is now slated to eventually reopen as a wildlife refuge and
public recreation area, where people will be allowed to bike,
hike and possibly hunt. Iversen says she wants to make sure
people know the risks they’re getting into if they choose to go
into the Rocky Flats area for any kind of public recreation.

“There are breathable particles of plutonium out there in
various hot spots and people need to know the kind of risks
they’re taking if they’re hiking or biking out at the Rocky
Flats National Wildlife Refuge,” she says. “Or if they’re going
to let their kindergartener or first-grader go out on a trip to
Rocky Flats. People need to know what remains.”
Interview Highlights
On plutonium pits, which were developed at Rocky Flats

“They’re about the size of a half-grapefruit, slightly
flattened, gray in color. And they were shaped and machined
— there was a foundry where the plutonium was
melted — and then they were shaped and machined
within these glove boxes. And the process itself created
a lot of dust and shavings and that sort of thing. So
that was always a problem. But when a worker was finished
with that particular part of the process, the plutonium
pit was moved up to a conveyer line and then it went down to the
next part for the next stage.”

On missing plutonium at Rocky Flats

“The Department of Energy has admitted to more than 3,000
pounds of missing plutonium. It has kind of a funny acronym.
It’s called MUF, which stands for missing unaccounted-for
plutonium. Well, where did that missing plutonium go? Three
thousand pounds is a lot when you think about the fact that
one-millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer or a
health effect. So where was it? Well, in 1990, they revealed
that 62 pounds of plutonium had been trapped in the vents and
the piping between the building. That’s enough for six or seven
bombs right there. The Department of Energy has claimed that
much of the plutonium that was missing was due to administrative
errors or they put it somewhere and meant to put it somewhere
else. It’s just plutonium that has somehow been lost in the
system. Or it could be administrative errors for part of it. I
think some of it ended up in my backyard, frankly. A lot of it
went out into the Denver metro area.”