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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.

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BJ: Doesn't the whole industry tend to minimize that?

KI: That's right. It's doublespeak. It's like, "Well, yes, it's dangerous but it's okay. Don't worry about it."

BJ: Some of the most disturbing recurring scenes in the book are those in which you and your siblings and neighborhood friends are enjoying the outdoors where you lived -- horseback riding, swimming, hiking, taking in the views of the mountains and the surrounding wildlife. As the reader, knowing what's being produced just above in Rocky Flats, all of this natural beauty and the freedom of a childhood growing up in such a seemingly idyllic setting feels tainted and ominous. It's this juxtaposition that really sets the tone for the book, gives it the feel of a thriller, except that real lives are at stake. Is that what you were setting out to show with this juxtaposition or was it just a natural outgrowth of writing the book?

KI: I wanted to write a book that was factually accurate, absolutely accurate. And I had many research assistants and lots of people helping me with the technical aspects of the book to make sure that everything I said was accurate. And yet, you know, a book about plutonium would be very boring [laughs].

What makes plutonium interesting? I had to write about these very technical and legal things. I wanted people to understand how these things had a very direct effect on people's lives. The workers, the residents, the activists: so many people's lives have been affected by Rocky Flats. In order to do that I wanted to write the book like a novel, I wanted it to read like a novel, so that it was highly readable. So that people could understand the story and understand the characters -- you know, characters like Bill and Stan, Bill Dennison and Stan Skinger in that opening scene. These weren't just two anonymous firefighters who went in and fought this incredible [1969 Mother's Day] fire. I wanted the reader to understand the psychology and the motivation into what these men were thinking and feeling.

The first time I wrote that opening chapter I had us moving out to Standley Lake and going for Sunday brunch, and then much, much later about the fire. Then it occurred to me that the reader needs to understand what we did not know at the time when we out having Sunday brunch, my siblings and my mother and my father. There was a fire at the plutonium factory. There was a fire at Rocky Flats that had devastating consequences for the plant and for the environment and the surrounding community. There was a radioactive cloud that quite literally traveled over our heads and moved around the city of Denver. We didn't know. We didn't find out about that until much, much later. But I wanted the reader to understand that here's this family having Mother's Day brunch and there's a radioactive cloud traveling right over them.

I wanted the reader to understand the connection between the personal and the political. I think the most powerful stories can be revealed through personal experience.

BJ: It is a very human story, and not only because of your personal descriptions of your life and the life of your family growing up under the shadow of Rocky Flats, but also those people whom you describe throughout the book who were touched by the facility in some way -- from neighbors who drank from contaminated wells, to workers at Rocky Flats, to the attorney who worked for over a decade on the class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents.

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