Denver was almost annihilated

A fire at a Colorado nuclear weapons plant in 1969 could have wiped out the city, a new book contends

Topics: The Listener, Nuclear Weapons, Kristen Iversen, Books, Full Body Burden,

Denver was almost annihilated
This is the latest installment of our new weekly audiobook column, The Listener. Every Thursday, Laura Miller or another top critic will recommend a great new title. The Listener is sponsored by Audible.

Prior to 1951, American nuclear bombs were custom-built at the famous Los Alamos laboratory. The plutonium was produced in eastern Washington state, and the uranium enriched in Oak Ridge, Tenn. But the Cold War was on, and with it an arms race with the Soviet Union. The time had come for American nuke-making to move out of the boutique business and into mass-production.

The Atomic Energy Commission spread the labor among 13 sites across the country. Arguably, the most critical was the secret plant operated by Dow Chemical in Rocky Flats, Colo., which smelted, purified and shaped the plutonium trigger at the core of every American nuclear bomb manufactured between 1952 and 1989. Seventy-thousand triggers, and each one, as Kristen Iversen writes in “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats,” containing “enough breathable particles of plutonium to kill every person on earth.”

The plant is constructed in haste, and without public review. Because of an error in the site review — and in violation of the AEC’s own building criteria, and despite internal warnings — it is built in the wind path of the nearby growing city of Denver. Apocalyptic catastrophe, in other words, is only a few mistakes away. On May 11, 1969 — Mother’s Day — it nearly arrives, when “a few sparks of plutonium spontaneously spark and ignite in a glove box.” Owing to the holiday, the plant is understaffed, and the fire alarm has been disconnected in order to “save space in the crowded production room.”

This information — the nuclear annihilation of Denver was close at hand in 1969, and hardly anyone knew — is of sufficient dramatic intensity to carry a listener through an audiobook, even if that book might be, as many respectable works of nonfiction are, a mere recounting of fact after fact. But it is at this point — which arrives in the first chapter — that Iversen begins to distinguish herself as a storyteller. She slows down, and offers us the point of view of four security guards — Stan, Bill, Joe and Al — and a radiation monitor named Willie Warling. We’re immersed in their personal histories, their wants, needs, desires and aspirations — all they have to gain, and, crucially, all they have to lose.

Then Iverson reconstructs the Mother’s Day Fire, as it will come to be known, in an intimate and agonizing moment-by-moment account, through the eyes of the men who risked their lives and their health to extinguish the fire with sand and carbon dioxide and, dangerously, water. An AEC fire investigator will later conclude that had late-arriving firefighters been successful in moving one stray pile of wet plutonium oxide ash with their hoses, the likeliest outcome would have been the blue flash of “criticality” — in other words, a nuclear chain reaction, with Denver downwind.

This blending of fact-based reporting with such narrative warmth is no small achievement. The meticulousness of Iversen’s research is so frequently muted by the spell of the storytelling that the listener often forgets for long stretches that the experience is mediated by language at all. John Gardner called this sensation “the uninterrupted dream,” and it’s a thing rarely experienced in the contemporary novel, much less in contemporary works of nonfiction. And in “Full Body Burden,” it has a thematic payoff. Unlike so many writers of history, even polemical history, Iversen never allows her audience to forget that as high as the stakes might be — and in the case of a story about the dangers of nuclear weapons, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

In Iversen’s hands (and narrator Kirsten Potter), this is a human story, not one about public policy or the fates of corporations or politicians. When the listener worries about the destruction of Denver, or, later, the environmental contaminants that burden — and, in some cases, kill — those people and animals who live near the plutonium plant at Rocky Flats, it’s not an abstract worry. We’re thinking about Stan and Bill and Joe and Al. And we’re thinking about Iversen and her family (she grew up not far from the plant): Dick Iversen’s spiraling alcoholism, Kristen Iversen’s discovery of John Updike’s racy novel “Couples,” and Karma Iversen’s anti-nuke protest in the snow with Daniel Ellsberg on the eve of President Jimmy Carter’s speech at the Solar Energy Research Institute. There is an implicit message in these choices. It is the private that gives the public meaning. As Philip Roth’s fictional father remarks in “The Plot Against America”: “History is everything that happens everywhere.”

These elegances of Iversen’s are neatly paired with the confident, understated delivery by Potter, a narrator wise enough to avoid the melodramatic over-enunciating endemic to the contemporary audiobook. Unabridged, the audiobook edition of “Full Body Burden” asks 14 hours of the listener. But Potter carries it gracefully. She is as pleasant a companion as Iversen, and it is with not a little sadness that the listener parts ways with their searingly beautiful presentation.

*   *   *

New to Audible? Check out “Full Body Burden” for free, or listen to a sample.

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>