America’s Fukushima

Book review of Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen. The story of growing up in Rocky Flats, Colorado, the site of a mismanaged and dangerous nuclear bomb factory on the outskirts of Denver. Plutonium production facilities in a suburban paradise? Maybe not such a good idea.

The Rocky Flats Plant, Arvada, Colorado
There is a common perception that the scale of nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is matched only by the Chernobyl accident of 1986. That may be accurate, but there are other travesties of nuclear history that are less well known and possibly equally consequential in terms of their impacts on environmental and human health. These other cases are important for the lessons they can teach about the contentious struggles that occur when a population is exposed to radiation and seeks remedies to the injustice of being poisoned by an industrial crime.
One such case is the sixty-year history of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory, presently called, dubiously, The Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge, protecting the “threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.”

Ask yourself, “When I was a teenager, how many people of my age, in my school or in my neighborhood, do I recall having cancer?” If you were living, like most people, in a reasonably clean environment, the answer is probably none, or one at the most. If there had suddenly been several children and teenagers in your community getting cancer, you might have reasonably suspected that something toxic was in the local environment, and you would have come to this conclusion quickly instead of waiting for the responsible authorities to conduct scientific studies.
Kristen Iversen, in her book Full Body Burden, tells the story of Rocky Flats (twenty-six kilometers northwest of Denver) and her experience of growing up within sight of the bomb factory. In her case, she knew several children and teenagers around her who developed cancer. In addition, as years went by, she observed many adults, including herself and her family members, develop cancer and other illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome and immune system disorders. The Department of Energy and other government agencies have never done health studies on the nearby populations who were most likely to be affected by plutonium contamination. Even though investigations by the FBI and the EPA over the years have confirmed the extent to which the plant was mismanaged and the surrounding area was contaminated, the government has always maintained the line that levels of plutonium in the environment are not high enough to have impacted health. Residents had volumes of anecdotal evidence of deformed livestock and unusually high rates of cancers and other serious illnesses, but this was never enough to prompt the proper studies and official recognition of health effects from the operation of the Rocky Flats bomb factory. Such is the way it goes with all cases of nuclear accidents, and most cases of chemical pollution. The studies most likely to produce unwelcome results are never funded.

I wrote a point form summary (below) of the Rocky Flats story told in Full Body Burden, but other good coverage has been done in the numerous reviews that have been published in recent months (Kirkus Reviews, The Denver Post). If you have read this far, you might be interested enough to take thirty minutes to watch the videos below of physicist and nuclear expert Tom Cochrane describing what he testified in official investigations into the environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. He explains the nature of plutonium and the hazards of handling it, then describes the criminal mismanagement of Rocky Flats that lasted over several decades. His detailed and dispassionate report describes the history in terms of fire safety, waste disposal, plutonium inventory control, and management of nuclear criticality dangers. The first three get a failing grade, while the last squeaks by with a D only because, in spite of the poor controls, good luck prevailed and there never was the serious criticality event that could have left Denver uninhabitable.

Once you know about the crimes against the environment at Rocky Flats, and understand recklessness, cowardice, greed and complacency that caused them, you see in a new light how fatuous it was of American radiation specialists to come to Fukushima offering their so-called years of expertise in radioactive decontamination. All they could offer is the lesson of their negative example and the knowledge gained by trial and error.
Chinook winds blow the plutonium-laden dust far and wide.
Plutonium plume from the 1957 fire at Rocky Flats

Notes on Rocky Flats history

1.        The facility was operated by Dow Chemical from 1953-75, and Rockwell International from 1975-1989, under contract from the Atomic Energy Commission, (later the Department of Energy). Afterwards, the lengthy process of decommissioning began.
2.        The plant processed large amounts of plutonium to make the triggers for thermonuclear weapons. Workers, the local environment, and residents downwind were contaminated with high levels of plutonium, radioactive substances such as uranium, cesium, strontium, and beryllium, in addition to various non-radioactive hazardous chemicals.
3.        The area is subjected to extremely strong winds called Chinooks. The contaminants travelled far from the local area. Plutonium is most harmful as an internal contaminant, and the most dangerous pathway into the body is through breathing.
4.        Two fires, in 1957 and 1969, spewed large amounts of plutonium into the air and came very close to being catastrophic for the city of Denver.
5.        Production quotas always took precedence over safety, especially when there were bonuses involved for the workers and for contractor revenue.
6.        According to their contracts with the government, the contractors Dow and Rockwell were indemnified against legal claims, so legal costs, damage costs and fines were paid by taxpayers. What they did have to pay amounted to small fractions of the assets of these large corporations.
7.        Awareness of the problems grew during the 1970s, and opposition eventually led to the United States government prosecuting itself. There was a surprise raid at Rocky Flats by the FBI and EPA which was launched under the pretext that the FBI wanted to discuss anti-terrorism protocols with the plant management and the Department of Energy.
8.        After the FBI-EPA investigation, a grand jury convened for three years but in the end, unknown entities within the Justice Department ordered the case closed. The grand jury was denied its duty to hand down an indictment. Rockwell International escaped indictment, the file was sealed and jurors were ordered to not speak, but they did anyway.
9.        MUF. Plutonium Missing or Unaccounted For – this is the acronym for plutonium that might have disappeared through errors of accounting or record keeping, gone to the environment (which also means into persons’ lungs, bones and gonads), to theft, to being mixed with other waste materials, or into ducts and other parts of buildings. In total, the MUF is enough to make numerous weapons.
10.     Successful decontamination tended to be defined by the budget allocated to it. It was supposedly just a fortunate coincidence, according to officials, that the site was cleaned up and declared a wildlife refuge for a fraction of the original estimate.
11.     The government refused to do the most pertinent health studies of the people who lived in the nearby suburban communities.
12.     Thousands of people moved into the area because of real estate greed and bureaucratic denial of the hazards to health. Once people had moved in, concerns about property values and the jobs provided by Rocky Flats turned residents into allies of the entities that were poisoning their children. This continues to be the case now that developers want to build close to the newly opened Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge.
13.     There is still contention over how to define the site. Some say it should be called a sacrifice zone, with signage and public education that tells the world what happened there. Instead, it has been defined as a wildlife refuge. The label “wildlife refuge” is a compromise that keeps people and development out of the contaminated zone but stops short of informing the public of the ongoing danger and the history of the site.
14.     Inside Rocky Flats buildings, and in other similar factories in America and other nuclear states, there are places nicknamed “eternity rooms.” These are places so contaminated that decontamination work is impossible.

The FBI and EPA investigation against Rockwell International and the Department of Energy

1.  The allegations:
a.   concealment of criminal activity
b.   false certification
c.   improper storage
d.   illegal discharge of pollutants
e.   concealed incineration of pollutants
2.  Employees were threatened not to become whistle blowers.
3.  Rockwell sued the DOJ, EPA and DOE, saying it couldn’t deliver the contracted services if the price included conforming to environmental standards.
4.  DOE cancelled the contract with Rockwell.
5.  1989 – Grand Jury trial, lasted 2.5 years.
6.  Jurors were ordered to decide on the suitability of proceeding with indictments.
7.  A worker who testified was deliberately poisoned with plutonium by coworkers who feared for their jobs.
8.  The jury voted to indict on numerous charges, against numerous individuals.
9.  At the conclusion of the grand jury trial, the DOJ prosecutor refused to sign indictments regarding 400 violations.
10.  The prosecutor negotiated a plea bargain instead:
a.  $18.5 million fine – 1/6 of 1% of Rockwell’s annual sales, less than the bonuses paid to Rockwell at Rocky Flats for that year.
b.  Rockwell was reimbursed by taxpayers for $7.9 million in legal fees.
c.  Rockwell was indemnified against future claims and allowed to bid on future government contracts.
d.  The judge ordered the records sealed.
e.  No individuals were prosecuted for crimes.
f.  The jury was ordered to remain silent.
g. The jury wrote a report and asked the judge to make it public, but the request was refused.
h.  Someone on the jury leaked the report to the media anyway.
11. The significant question emerging from this was whether government agencies could be held accountable at all. Considering the old saying “you can’t fight city hall,” it is a much bigger question to ask how individuals can fight a global superpower over the effects of its defense policy of building thousands of nuclear weapons.
12. Government contractors like Rockwell were only fulfilling the obligations of their contracts with the government. How could they be blamed for helping to fulfill government policy?
14. How do you prosecute the government for national policy that lasts over decades?
15. After this case, more workers began to suffer health problems and they brought other lawsuits against Rockwell and the Department of Energy, with only limited success.

   Full Body Burden could have been a typical non-fiction, blow-by-blow account of an environmental and public health tragedy, but Kristen Iversen makes it more powerful and poignant by weaving it with the story of herself and her family coming out of years of denial – denial that weaves together the personal and the political.
In the year and a half that has elapsed since the Fukushima meltdowns, I’ve been perplexed by how much a government can abuse and disdain its own people with so little fear of consequences. I’ve seen 60,000 people march in the streets of Tokyo, and I’ve seen the weekly demonstrations at the Prime Minister’s residence. 10,000 people are trying to force public prosecutors to open a criminal prosecution of TEPCO management.  But still, the majority are silent. In raw numbers, the opposition movement is impressive, but the majority do not want to face up to the reality that their nation has become a nuclear waste depository.
When she was younger, Kristen Iversen was no different than this cowed majority, and this is the most surprising aspect of her story. When she was a college student, her boyfriend argued with her over her political apathy and refusal to join the Rocky Flats protests. She drove by the demonstrators thinking they were just a bunch of students and housewives who want to get their names in the papers. She asked, “Don’t you think the government would tell us if it weren’t safe?” It took years for this defensive stance to break down.
Thus her story, and my daily encounters with Japanese youth, force me to reject the conventional view that youth is a rebellious stage of life. In fact, it’s not and probably never was. Only a minority of young people can afford to be rebellious, which explains why the revolutionaries of history usually came from the comfortable bourgeoisie. For most people, youth is a time of conservatism and ambition. Young people generally have faith in the society they will have to join, and they move into it unquestioningly.
Young people are naïve and lack confidence in their own knowledge. For all they know, those nuclear warheads really are necessary for world peace. And the reality is as incredible as a fantasy that alien invaders built the pyramids. The world is littered with nuclear waste that will last 100,000 years and thousands of bombs pose an existential threat to humanity? Go on. Who would do such a thing? Get out of here.
The young haven’t had decades of life experience to absorb this information. Why would any young person be inclined to swallow the red pill and forever turn away from life’s comfortable certainties? It takes most people a very long time to realize, that no, actually, the government wouldn’t always tell you if it were unsafe.
Young adults have also been worked hard and conditioned to compete and conform, and they want the prizes that have been promised. They want freedom from parents, they want to party, fall in love, get laid, and most of all they want to get their share. They claim these things as if they are rights guaranteed by a UN declaration. If some of them see clearly, they might think, like Jim Morisson, "I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames." But no one gains anything by laying himself down on the railway tracks leading to a plutonium processing facility, whether it is in Rocky Flats, Colorado or Rokkasho, Japan. If inconvenient facts get in the way, they will be denied and ignored. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to lose your illusions. The great achievement of Full Body Burden is that it will help readers accelerate this process.

Plutonium production elsewhere?

The list below is other plutonium production facilities used by all the members of the United Nations Security Council to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Of the five countries listed, only two of them (China and France) experienced no known incidents that released high levels of radiation to the environment.

The plutonium for the first British hydrogen bomb was made in Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, then production moved to Windscale and Sellafield, UK in the 1950s. Chalk River also provided 250 kg of plutonium for American nuclear weapons, in spite of its stated purpose of existing for the peaceful uses of atomic energy. There were major accidents at Windscale in 1957 and Chalk River in 1952 and 1958.



Soviet Union/Russia
Mayak Production Association (major accidents in 1957 and 1968, and several minor incidents)

United States of America
Rocky Flats, Colorado, Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and various other facilities. Major releases of contamination at Rocky Flats in the fires of 1957 and 1969.

Further interest:
The documentary film Dark Circle (1982) on Youtube. About the film.

The Doors. The Cosmic Movie.
Well we're all in the cosmic movie - you know that 
means the day you die you got to watch
your whole life recurring eternally forever, 
so you better have some good incidents
happening there... and a fitting climax. 
I tell you this, I don't know what's
gonna happen man, but I'm wanna have
my kicks before the whole shit house
goes up in flames.


  1. Hello, Dennis,
    I learned of your blog from Kristen Iversen's Facebook. I learned of her book before it was to be published and anxiously pre-ordered a copy for myself and my parents living near the Rocky Flats area. It was a major factor in realizing that I was born and raised in a contaminated area. I was 5 during the 1969 Mother Day's Fire she writes about.
    Our family home received (receives) drinking tap water from Standley Lake Reservoir Kristen rights about in her book. Our home was smack dab between Rocky Flats and Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where neighbors on either side of our home worked.
    My Japanese husband did a homestay with my high school friend whose father worked at Rocky Flats.
    My friend, also in Japan, grew up down wind of Rocky Flats and does have a thryroid problem. I was surprised to learn that her Japanse husband's father worked for a nuclear power plant and received experimented food. His Japanese mother died at an early age. Her mother died of lung cancer perhaps from the Radon in her home in Denver. She drove on 93 to the University of Colorado like the author and also had family who worked at Rocky Flats.

    I have been in Japan for almost 30 years, have 2 children, one working and one in university.
    When people wrote or called telling me that I had to leave Japan after Fukushima, I reply with irony, that I did leave. I left an area due east of Rocky Flats, the dust storms, the harsh weather, and plutonium barrels left out on the prairie and dirt that no one thought about cleaning up, the grass I ran on barefoot., and the infamous "Brown Cloud" that hung over the Denver population for decades. What was in that cloud?
    I still miss my home area of Colorado and the nature. But, we do need to come to terms with our history there.
    A great place to grow up, but what were we exposed to? I'd like some acknowledgement for the people there, working or supporting the economy, or children of the Cold War era.
    A 4th grade teacher disciplined us by telling us that "The Soviets have a missile pointed right at your back yard." We didn't know why. Now we do. Surely they knew more about Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal than WE did!!
    We had rumors of freakish animals way before The Simpson's brought to TV.

    Dr. Iversen's book is a major book that lets the reader understand how WE could live within miles of a factory that we absolutely had no knowledge of.

  2. I just moved from the RF area, my house backed to Standley Lake. I had no idea the whole time we lived there. I am now so upset. Not sure if you know about this petition. https://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-building-of-a-toll-road-trails-and-bike-paths-on-rocky-flats-wildlife-refuge?utm_campaign=action_box&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=share_petition#description