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.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

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>