A few years ago, I stopped reporting on Los Alamos National Laboratory. I was no longer confident in my ability to remain objective when writing about the nuclear weapons facility. There’s no way I can pretend that the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons is a good idea, no matter where it’s done. And I’ve interviewed too many people whose stories turned my stomach.
As a rookie reporter, I sat at the edge of a whistle-blower’s white couch. This Los Alamos scientist had agreed to talk with me, had a change of heart as I’d arrived, then ended up talking for more than four hours about contamination, illnesses and suicides. Feeling trapped, I sat there as words poured from the mouth of someone who would not officially talk to me, yet could not stop remembering.
About five years ago, I met a woman who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. When she was 13 years old—on her first day of school that year—American pilots dropped an atomic bomb on her city. She was standing on the street with other children. “It was beautiful blue sky,” Shigeko Sasamori told me. “I looked at the sky, the airplane I saw, and I told my classmate next to me, ‘Look. That plane is so pretty.’”
With a third of her body burned, she spent the next five days drifting in and out of consciousness in a school dormitory, repeating her name and address and asking for a drink of water. Eventually, she was reunited with her parents. Her father suffered from radiation sickness. “He was throwing up, having diarrhea and purple things coming out.”
I also met a man who worked at Los Alamos from 1962 until 1990. What finally saved him was the end of the Cold War, and the diminished nuclear threat.
At the end of our meeting, this big man, whose face warmed with love every time he looked at his wife, told me that the lab’s biggest concern was looking good. “The bottom line,” he said, “is they don’t want to get nailed like Rocky Flats did.”
Rocky Flats was a nuclear bomb trigger factory that operated for 40 years near Denver—until whistle-blowers revealed illegal nighttime burns. The FBI and the US Environmental Protection Agency raided the facility and eventually shut it down.
In her new book, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, writer Kristen Iverson abandons objectivity, but not the facts. Iverson grew up in Arvada, Colo., in a development in the factory’s periphery. She also worked as a secretary there while raising two kids and attending graduate school.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she ignored the presence of Rocky Flats: the sickened workers, classmates stricken with cancer, the “downwinder” scars from thyroid surgery. Once she started to realize what was happening at Rocky Flats—that people were working with plutonium, not “cleaning supplies” as she’d heard as a child—she set out to understand the plant, its workers and its legacy.
In Iverson’s hands, that nighttime raid makes for a thrilling read in the annals of environmental enforcement. In their final allegations, the FBI and EPA revealed that Rockwell International, the private contractor running Rocky Flats, had concealed environmental contamination, falsified environmental reports, stored hazardous and radioactive waste improperly and illegally discharged pollutants into creeks that flowed to drinking water supplies.
But the federal government ended up abandoning its pursuit of justice. After hearing almost two-years worth of testimony, a grand jury voted to indict Rockwell, five of its employees and three US Department of Energy employees. Then, the federal prosecutor refused to sign the indictments. “Not a single Rockwell or DOE official is indicted,” writes Iverson, “despite the fact that more than four hundred environmental violations occurred for decades.”
What makes Iverson’s story so compelling isn’t just the vivid tale of the trigger factory and the repeated miscarriages of justice. She also weaves her own story through the chronicle of Rocky Flats. She writes of what it was like to grow up nearby—riding horses, exploring with the abandon of a child, even falling in love. While trying to set the record straight on Rocky Flats, she also confronts her own family’s secrets. In short, she has written a story that matters—a story that matters not just to the nation, but also to her family and her childhood community.
Iverson’s story is specifically about Rocky Flats, but it will captivate anyone—especially anyone living downwind of a nuclear weapons factory.