Friday, June 15, 2012

Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats: An Interview with Kristen Iversen

We live in an "information age" of smartphones, laptops, facebook, and the twitterverse constantly updating us, keeping everyone abreast of the recent developments of the last ten seconds. So to us, it seems impossible that, throughout the operation of the Rocky Flats plant, the citizens living outside Arvada had no idea what went on there.

In Full Body Burden, Kristen Iversen provides a glimpse of how this was possible, and gives faces to the human beings who were affected by the plant. I had a chance to ask Kristen a few questions about her new book.

Boulder Book Store: When I first started reading Full Body Burden, I was struck by how much happened in the first chapter. It really set the tone for the rest of the book when what would be a climax in most books happened twice in the first twenty or so pages of your 350 page book. Why did you choose to structure things that way?

Kristen: I felt that the most important aspect of this book, right from the start, was the connection between the personal and the political.  By that I mean the intimate and devastating connection between U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the story of my family and my neighbors, and how we all paid a heavy price for secrecy and silencing.  I knew I wanted to open the story with the 1969 fire, but I also wanted the reader to understand that this wasn’t just an industrial fire at a factory—this was a terrible accident that had consequences in the community and in people’s personal lives.  On Sunday, June 11, 1969, my family was having Mother’s Day brunch.  We didn’t know there was a radioactive cloud moving over our heads.  But the reader knows.  I also wanted to establish the two firefighters, Stan Skinger and Bill Dennison, as very real characters.  What were they thinking, what were they feeling?  Those guys risked their lives to save Denver.  These opening scenes set the stage for the rest of the book, for the movement between the story of Rocky Flats and U.S. nuclear weapons policy during and after the Cold War, and the stories of people whose lives were impacted by those policies—local residents, Rocky Flats workers, and activists.

BBS: One thing I found particularly interesting (from a literary standpoint) with your telling of the story is the part that water plays. Archetypally/customarily, water symbolizes purity and cleansing, but every time you mentioned water in Full Body Burden, it felt ominous and discomforting. Can you elaborate on that?

K: Water sustains life.  It is the lifeblood of the land, of the community, of the human body.  In literature, as you mention, it often represents rebirth, cleansing, and a renewal of life or spiritual rebirth.  When I was growing up, like other kids in the neighborhood my siblings and I swam in the lake and floated on rafts down the canals around Rocky Flats.  For us, water represented playfulness and freedom.  But the water was not pure.  Plutonium is a heavy metal, and it settled into the sediment of the lake.  It was in the mud and the sand.  Things were not as they appeared.  The water contained invisible danger and threat.  Tamara Meza’s family drank water from a well that was fed by Standley Lake, and the water was supposed to sustain the family and also their animals and garden.  They paid a price for depending on that water.  Water meant something entirely different to the firefighters at Rocky Flats.  To use water on a plutonium fire, which the firefighters often had to do, meant risking a fatal criticality (nuclear chain reaction).

What happens in this story is a subversion of water as a symbol of purity.  When a government or corporation allows the water supply of a community to become contaminated, it strikes at the very heart of that community.

BBS: I love how beautifully written many of the passages are, and how particular you are with the language. For example, one point where you’re describing your mother: “I love the way she says, ‘I gave up everything for you kids,’ or ‘I would do anything for you kids.’ She is a displaced queen, unseated, usurped, somehow denied what the world promised her, always waiting for her ship to come in. I love the way she tells me I’m her best friend…I hate the way my mother simmers with fear. The way she keeps up appearances and covers things up. The way she slips off to her room at any sign of trouble and lies on the bed with her eyes closed, saying prayers to herself. The way she says, ‘I gave up everything for you kids. Everything.’” I’m just selecting the part about your mother, but that whole section really demonstrates your precision with language, how the tone and meaning change with the same words. It’s great! And the way you use language combined with the material you’re discussing makes Full Body Burden a very powerful, moving book. I nearly cried in public on the bus several times, and that does not happen to me often.

K: I think the challenge of writing creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction is that you have to balance fact and art.  That is, the language is just as important as the subject, and vice versa.  You have to stay true to the facts, and facts matter—especially in a story like this.  But art matters, too, and that’s what differentiates literary nonfiction from journalism and other forms of nonfiction writing where you’re not thinking so much about aesthetics.  You have to tell the story as fully, truthfully, and objectively as you can, but still write like a poet.  Or try to, at least.  The sound and rhythm of the language are just as important as the footnotes you’ve triple-checked along the way.

BBS: I think the quote you provide from Niels Bohr gets at the crux of the larger issue at hand: “I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory…You have done just that.” To me, Rocky Flats seemed to start out simply as a defense operation. Then once health concerns were raised, keeping the plant open became an issue of sacrificing a few thousand Americans to “save” the whole country. And then from there, that morphed into a monetary liability versus a health liability (which, while the previous two are legitimate debatable ethics, this is where it seemed that the lines were clearly drawn and then crossed). Is that your understanding as well? Do you think these issues were a product of the different times/era? Or is something else at play?

K: Bohr was right.  He, like many other scientists and physicists associated with the Manhattan Project, including Robert Oppenheimer, came to regret or certainly have very mixed feelings about what had been unleashed upon the world.

The AEC was aware of many of the dangers of processing plutonium and the production of nuclear weapons from very early on, as well as the effect that this might have on human health.  In the 1940s, the government injected 18 people with plutonium (without their knowledge) to test its effect.  Beginning in the early 1970s, beagles were used for studies to determine the biological consequences of inhaled, ingested, and injected plutonium, and what that might mean for human tolerance of plutonium.  Neither the human nor animal subjects in these experiments fared well.

Nuclear weapons facilities were initially exempted from environmental law and regulation, and private corporations like Dow and Rockwell were (and are) largely indemnified from nuclear accidents or incidents.  The production of plutonium pits was the number one priority, and everything was hidden behind the veil of Cold War secrecy.  A great deal of money was—and still is—at stake, and these companies operated on a cost-plus basis.  The cultural and environmental cost of our nuclear weapons program—a price that includes the health of workers and local citizens—was there from the beginning, but it took a long time to come to light.  I hope that Full Body Burden might help us more fully understand the history of Rocky Flats and what it represents not only for the state of Colorado but for our country as a whole.

BBS: Another strong theme is “The government would tell us if Rocky Flats was unsafe” with this complete trust in the government. I don’t believe I’ve grown up during a time where the larger American populous had such parental trust in the government (I was born in 1985, Reagan era). Does Rocky Flats play a part in that? But even with today’s sort of rampant distrust, it’s still hard for me to imagine how much was covered up and how harmful it was to the population. Admittedly, some of it was unknown, but the things that were clearly dangerous – the tests that were done -- it’s quite remarkable and very chilling that they continued to cover it all up.

K: There were a number of reasons why people didn’t ask too many questions about Rocky Flats, especially in the beginning.  The Soviet threat seemed very real to people like my parents, and they thought the government was keeping us safe.  “Better dead than red” was a phrase I heard more than once.  Rocky Flats was also one of the best jobs in town.  When families are dependent upon a factory for their livelihoods—to pay for mortgages and food and everything else--and workers are told that their jobs depend upon their ability to keep a secret, they keep secrets.  Many workers thought they were doing the right thing for their families, and doing the right thing for the security of the nation during a time of threat.

But the most important point is that we just didn’t know.  No one really knew what was going on at Rocky Flats, and we certainly didn’t know about environmental contamination or potential health effects.  Even now, it’s hard for many residents to hear about what happened at Rocky Flats.  They worry about their property values.  They worry about their health.  They worry about their children. 

I believe we’re all, to a certain extent, complicit in the cover-up about Rocky Flats.  Homebuilders want to build houses.  City planners want to build highways and shopping malls.  People want to get on with their lives.  I think many people would like to believe that if we just don’t talk about Rocky Flats, don’t put signs up out there, and pretend the whole thing never happened, it will eventually go away.  But plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.  Even if the land looks pristine, even if we put a shopping mall on top of it, it is not pristine.  It is not safe.  The story must not be forgotten.

BBS: Why do you think your book is the first major publication about Rocky Flats? It closed twenty years ago and I’m surprised there haven’t been several books written since then. I understand you’ve been working on your book for ten years because of the amount of research you put into it. Is that because there was so much to sort through? Was it difficult to find people willing/able to talk to you about it?

K: It took me a long time to write this book.  The research was almost overwhelming.  I have enough boxes of research to make a library!  Just getting my mind around the project was a huge undertaking.  I had practical considerations as well.  For much of that time I was a single parent, and I was also teaching full-time at the university. I completed the final stages of the book during two month-long residencies with Colorado Art Ranch, for which I am very grateful.  One of the great surprises during my research was to discover that people were not only willing to talk to me, but grateful for the opportunity.  There are so many people whose lives were affected by Rocky Flats.  They want to tell their stories.

My book is not the first book about Rocky Flats.  There are several others worthy of note.  Len Ackland, who teaches at the University of Colorado, wrote Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, which is a very solid look at the history of the plant.  The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crimes and How We Caught Them Red Handed, by Caron Balkany, Esq. and Wes McKinley (foreman for the Rocky Flats grand jury), is a fascinating look at the grand jury investigation.  Making the Impossible Possible, by Kim Cameron and Marc Lavine, tells the story of the management of Rocky Flats during the controversial cleanup.  There are a couple of good films about Rocky Flats as well, including Dark Circle and Rocky Flats: Legacy.

Full Body Burden, though, brings a very different approach and perspective to the story of Rocky Flats.  And I wanted the book to be highly readable; to read almost like a novel, even though the book is heavily footnoted.  

BBS: How do you feel/What do you think about the Rocky Flats Museum they’re talking about opening? Are you involved with that project in any way?

K: I think it’s very, very important to have a museum that tells the story of Rocky Flats and the history of the Cold War and post-Cold War years, not only for Colorado and the West but for the country as a whole.  We must not let Rocky Flats be forgotten.  My hope is that eventually we will have a museum that tells the story in all its complexities, with the richness and accuracy that it deserves, and not fall too readily into the realm of blind patriotism or polarized dissent.

You can hear Kristen Iversen speak about and sign Full Body Burden on Monday, June 18th at 7:30pm at Unity Church. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance and over the phone from Boulder Book Store or at the door day-of. 

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