Lofty Ambitions has been walking “In the Footsteps” of nuclear scientists (see our most recent posts in that series HERE and HERE). Our guest blogger today adds her personal story of growing up near and working at a nuclear weapons plant. If you’re in Seattle, you can find Kristen Iversen at the Modern Language Convention’s bookfair (booth #209) on January 5 at 4:00p.m. Kristen will also present with Anna on “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. at the Hilton Chicago.
Kristen Iversen is Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The University of Memphis and also Editor-in-Chief of The Pinch, an award-winning literary journal. During the summers she serves on the faculty of the MFA Low-Residency Program at the University of New Orleans, held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Edinburgh, Scotland. She is also the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Biography and the Barbara Sudler Award for Nonfiction, and Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. You can follow Kristen on Twitter by clicking HERE.
A COLD-WAR HARRIET THE SPY
I grew up in Arvada, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. My house was roughly three miles from the Rocky Flats nuclear weaponry facility, which secretly produced more than seventy thousand plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs—the heart of every nuclear bomb manufactured in the United States since 1953. Unbeknownst to my family or anyone else in our neighborhood, Rocky Flats heavily contaminated the environment with toxic and radioactive materials. Arvada is near Boulder, Colorado, well known as one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Our house was next to Standley Lake, where many of the neighborhood families swam and waterskied against a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. My siblings and I played in our backyard, swam in Standley Lake, and rode our horses in the fields around Rocky Flats. No one knew the land and water were contaminated, and none of us understood what was happening just down the road. The Rocky Flats plant was owned by the Department of Energy and operated by Dow Chemical. We thought they made household cleaning products. There were rumors about nuclear bombs, but no one asked questions. Cold War Secrecy was the rule.
Later, when I grew up, like many of the kids in my neighborhood I went to work at Rocky Flats. I was a single parent with two kids putting myself through college, and with the high pay, good benefits, and flexible hours, Rocky Flats was the best job in town. Like everyone else—even many employees at the plant— I didn’t really know what was produced at Rocky Flats. I needed the job. But I was keen to learn what actually happened there. I thought of myself as a kind of Cold War Harriett the Spy. Everyone else in the country thought the Cold War was over. But here in Arvada, it was happening in my own backyard.
I avoided the higher-paying jobs in the “hot” areas and went to work in administration. The weekly reports that I typed as part of my job described problems with radioactive waste storage, leaking drums and containers, spray “irrigation” of radioactive waste, fires, and other environment problems or “incidents.” I learned odd acronyms like MUF, which stood for “Material Unaccounted For,” describing how many pounds of plutonium had been lost in the system and in the environment. One millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer. Over the years, tons of plutonium were “lost” at Rocky Flats. In 1994 the DOE publicly admitted to 1.4 tons of MUF; other estimates, including those by the DOE, are substantially higher.
I began to learn the dramatic history and litany of problems at the plant, including details of the 1989 FBI raid, the only time in the history of our country that two government agencies—the FBI and the EPA—raided another government agency. I felt stunned by all I had not known about Rocky Flats over the years. The day I learned that I was working next to 14. 2 metric tons of plutonium—much of it unsafely stored—was the day I knew I had to quit. But I knew that someday I would write a book about Rocky Flats.
Twelve years of research and writing went into the book, and I met many fascinating people along the way. The story of attorney Peter Nordberg is especially poignant for me. Peter was one of the prosecuting attorneys for Cook v. Rockwell Int’l Corp, the class-action lawsuit by local residents against Rocky Flats. He devoted more than twenty years of his life to pursuing justice in this case, and he spent many hours in interviews with me. Sadly, he died unexpectedly of a heart condition not long after our last interview, and only days before his winning verdict was overturned on appeal. The Supreme Court is just now considering whether or not to address Cook v. Rockwell.
Several of the people I interviewed for this book have died within the last year or two. And yet, with a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium on and near the Rocky Flats site will persist long after we—and our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, and the many generations beyond—are gone.