Full Body Burden GROWING UP in the NUCLEAR SHADOW of ROCKY FLATS
Winner, Colorado Book Award & Reading the West Award. A Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews & American Library Association. Best Book about Justice by The Atlantic. Finalist, Barnes & Noble Discover Award & Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.
More than 20 universities around the country have chosen Full Body Burden for their First Year Experience/ Common Read Programs, including Virginia Commonwealth University, St. Bonaventure University, Fort Lewis College, California State University at Sacramento, Madison Community College, and Michigan Tech University.
Full Body Burden is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” It’s the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and—unknown to those who lived there—tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.
It’s also a book about the destructive power of secrets—both family and government. Her father’s hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed)—best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.
But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 “Mother’s Day Fire,” in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited, and—despite the desperate efforts of firefighters—came perilously close to a “criticality,” the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called “incidents.”
And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism—a detailed and shocking account of the government’s sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents’ vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers—from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job. Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.
“Beautifully fuses Iversen’s personal saga of maturation with the profoundly shocking history of the Rocky Flats site that few bothered to inform themselves about … a beautiful memoir that recognizes the inevitable intrusion of greater social forces in all our lives and the risk we take in ignoring them.”
“Intimate…Powerful…A potent examination of the dangers of secrecy…A serious and alarming book [that] has its share of charming moments.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Gripping…exquisitely researched…A superbly crafted tale of Cold War America’s dark underside.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Personal and powerful”
“One of the most important stories of the nuclear era — as personal and powerful as Silkwood, told with the suspense and narrative drive of The Hot Zone. With unflinching honesty, Kristen Iversen has written an intimate and deeply human memoir that shows why we should all be concerned about nuclear safety, and the dangers of ignoring science in the name of national security … an essential and unforgettable book.”
—REBECCA SKLOOT, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Powerful and beautiful”
“The fight over Rocky Flats was and is a paradigmatic American battle, of corporate and government power set against the bravery and anger of normal people. This is a powerful and beautiful account, of great use to all of us who will fight the battles that lie ahead.”
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Falter
“In this powerful work of research and personal testimony, Iversen chronicles the story of America’s willfully blinkered relationship to the nuclear weapons industry through the haunting experience of her own family in Colorado…The grief was ongoing, as Iversen renders in her masterly use of the present tense, conveying tremendous suspense and impressive control of her material.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Shocking and infuriating”
“Iversen seems to have been destined to write this shocking and infuriating story of a glorious land and a trusting citizenry poisoned by Cold War militarism and ‘hot’ contamination, secrets and lies, greed and denial….News stories come and go. It takes a book of this exceptional caliber to focus our attention and marshal our collective commitment to preventing future nuclear horrors.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“This terrifyingly brilliant book — as perfectly crafted and meticulously assembled as the nuclear bomb triggers that lie at its core — is a savage indictment of the American strategic weapons industry, both haunting in its power, and yet wonderfully, charmingly human as a memoir of growing up in the Atomic Age.”
—SIMON WINCHESTER, author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic.