Q&A: Author talks about growing up near nuclear weapons site

Kristen Iversen, an associate professor who heads the narrative nonfiction program at the University of Memphis, grew up in Arvada, Colo., about three miles from the plant in Rocky Flats that manufactured nuclear weapons from 1952 to 1992. She also worked in the plant’s administrative offices from 1995 to 1996.

She has since written a book, “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats,” published in 2012. The book was chosen by Sacramento State’s One Book program for 2013-14. On Tuesday night, Iversen will speak and sign books at Sacramento State as part of Author Day.

She recently spoke to the Sacramento Bee from her office in Tennessee.

What was it like growing up near the Rocky Flats plant? Did you know what was going on at the plant?

We could see the water tower (from the plant) from our back porch. I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t know it was a bomb factory. There was a rumor in the neighborhood that they were making household cleaning supplies. My mother thought they were making Scrubbing Bubbles.

My sisters and I knew there was a lot of cancer in the neighborhood, and we just thought that was the way it was. There were always whispers that it was due to Rocky Flats, but there was so much suppression, so much secrecy, no one was supposed to talk about it. A lot of workers got sick, and nobody talked about that, either.

You worked at the Rocky Flats plant for a short time. What was it like working there?

I wrote technical reports and worked with project managers. My boss told me, “You don’t need to understand this, just make it into good English.” I was writing about solar ponds and spills – all sorts of things, both good and bad. I didn’t fully understand what I was writing about and what was going on in the plant. The workers themselves were not aware of what was going on at the plant as a whole.

What prompted you to write this book?

One day (in 1996), I came home from work. I had picked up my kids from day care and put them to bed.

I came downstairs to fix myself a cup of tea, and there was a “Nightline” exposé on. They were interviewing people that I worked with, including Mark Silverman, the Department of Energy manager.

I remember sitting in the dark, learning for the first time that I was working next to 14 tons of plutonium. A millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer, and here was 14 tons, most of it unsafely stored. The plant was a mess.

Mark Silverman, to his credit, was the first DOE manager who was upfront about how bad the site was. That was the moment that I knew I would quit. The day I quit, I knew that I would write a book about it.

Given the secrecy surrounding Rocky Flats, how were you able to get information?

One thing that I did in the early stages was to interview as many people as I could to get the story. I took a room at the Standley Lake library (in Arvada) and put a notice up, saying I was writing a book on Rocky Flats, and I wanted to interview as many people as possible during these times and days. I told people I would use your name or not.

Given the enormous secrecy of the place, I had expected only a handful to show up. But I had people lined up at the door – people were eager to tell the stories that they were not able to tell. They told me all kinds of stories, experiences they had. There were workers at the plant, and some of the information I got was classified, so there were some things that I could not put in the book ... .

I got a lot of material from filing Freedom of Information requests. Under the Clinton administration, they released a lot of information, so I was overwhelmed with research.

There was very little that I could not discover. If I really wanted to get information, including the (1989) sealed grand jury report (which indicted three Department of Energy officials and five Rockwell International employees of committing environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats site), I could get it.

Do you or your family members have health issues as the result of living near Rocky Flats?

We (Iversen, two sisters and a brother) have been having mysterious symptoms – high blood cell count, fever, exhaustion – of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. One of my sisters had cancer two to three times.

I had a scare with lymphoma 17 years ago, when I was working at Rocky Flats. I moved away and went to San Jose, where I got better. I have spots on my lungs even though I never smoked.

What do you hope readers would get from reading the book?

I hope that people would be brave enough to tell their own stories, and also to question and pay attention to what happens around them environmentally and historically and not accept things at face value.