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We Had a Secret Nuclear Weapons Plant Near a Major American City? Yeah, One of the Most Contaminated Sites in America

A new book reveals the truth about a plutonium factory that hardly anyone knew existed.

Kristen Iversen grew up in the idyllic small town of Arvada, Colorado, near Denver. With the majestic Rocky Mountains soaring on the skyline, she and her siblings and neighbors played in green backyards, swam in the lake next to her house and rode horses in the wide-open fields. But only miles down the road, a secret nuclear weapons factory was producing America's plutonium triggers for its entire Cold War nuclear arsenal.

From 1952 to 1989, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant smelt, purified and shaped over 70,000 plutonium triggers --each with a $4 million price tag and each with enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every man, woman and child on the planet. Under the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Department of Energy), Dow Chemical, the notorious manufacturer of napalm and Agent Orange, operated the facility until 1975 with government-sanctioned environmental impunity. Rockwell International followed, with astonishing criminal environmental negligence that led to an unprecedented joint FBI and EPA raid in 1989 and the permanent halting of production.

But it would take decades after initial operations at Rocky Flats began before surrounding residents discovered that their air, water and soil had been contaminated with radioactive and toxic chemicals -- most profoundly with plutonium, "the darling and demon of the nuclear age" with its half-life of 24,000 years. Iversen's neighbors believed the facility made household cleaning products. They didn't know about the 1957 and 1969 plutonium fires at the plant, which sent radioactive plumes over the Denver metro area or about the 5,000 on-site barrels of nuclear waste that leaked plutonium into the soil and water column for years.

Today, Rocky Flats is a public wildlife refuge resting on plutonium-contaminated soil, while no health monitoring or compensation has been provided to surrounding residents exposed to the radioactive and toxic releases from the former weapons site. Iversen, who worked briefly as a secretary at Rocky Flats to help support her two sons, wrote the book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, to make sure that the U.S. government, the state of Colorado and the nuclear industry would not be allowed to bury the dark history of Rocky Flats and to give testimony to the lives it has forever changed.

Based on FBI and EPA documents, class-action testimony, independent and government-sanctioned studies, extensive interviews and Iversen's personal experiences, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is a haunting and suspenseful investigation into the human costs of the nuclear weapons industry and a timely reminder that nuclear contamination is not contained by political expediency or willful ignorance. AlterNet recently caught up with Iversen during her book tour and spoke with her by phone.

Brad Jacobson: A constant tension in the book is the internal battle that local residents and Rocky Flats workers feel between being concerned about what goes on at the nuclear weapons facility and willfully avoiding this knowledge to protect their peace of mind. You yourself struggled with this for years, even after you started to work as a secretary for Rocky Flats. What do you think is at the heart of this struggle?

Kristen Iversen: Well, none of us wants to believe that we live in an unsafe environment or that the government or a corporation would lie to us about what is in that environment. My parents believed they were raising their four children in the perfect environment. Part of the problem is that there was so much secrecy and silencing within the community and then out at the plant itself with respect to the workers who didn't really know. Many people didn't know what they would be doing for their jobs until they had actually worked there for a while.

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