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