review: Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen

I grew up in Southern Maryland. We Marylanders are specific with our location because Maryland is quite a diverse state in terms of weather, attractions, and personality type. For example, Southern Maryland is located where the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River converge and is known for crabs, the Pax River Naval Air Station, and a country lifestyle with chain restaurants and high-end living in Solomon’s Island. The Eastern Shore is nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and is known for colleges and parties at the beach; Northern Maryland has more art and history gems than you’d think; and Western Maryland gets feet of snow when Southern Maryland gets a drop of rain. For a small state, we are quite unique, and I truly love going home to visit my parents because I get to experience its natural beauty.

One thing that I never did get comfortable with while living there was the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. I lived only 17 miles from the reactor whose “two pressurized light water reactor units produce more than 1,700 megawatts of electricity, which power more than 1 million homes.” Sounds powerful, eh? That’s what I thought. I vividly remember being in 8th grade, laying on my parents bed, talking to my boyfriend Eddie. We were both watching the news, and they were showing night raids in (I believe) Kosovo. We both commented on our proximity to the nuclear power plant. I had similar conversations two years later after 9/11. The combination of being 60 miles from Washington, DC and having a nuclear reactor in our back yard did not make for very settling thoughts. But as far as I know, terrorists have left Calvert Cliffs alone, as have natural disasters. Whew!

But the residents of Rocky Flats, Colorado – and surrounding neighborhoods – were not.

Are not.

full body

Kristen Iversen’s memoir and expose Full Body Burden: growing up in the nuclear shadows of Rocky Flats follows the bleak brief history of Rocky Flats – a nuclear weapons facility that created plutonium triggers for bombs. Between 1953 through the 1992, 70,000 triggers were created, but not all of the plutonium was out into the triggers. Instead, thousands of pounds of the highly dangerous element were lost – Materials Unaccounted For is the term used by employees, management, and the Department of Energy – and found in the air ducts of the plant, and in the soil, water, and bodies of animals and HUMAN BEINGS located around Rocky Flats.

Allow me to reiterate: thousands of pounds of a radioactive element – one of the key elements found in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki – was wafting through the air around Boulder and Denver, Colorado. Animals burrowed it into the ground and ingested it. Humans breathed it in, and ate the animals that ingested it. They also drank the water it settled into.

And the Department of Justice, Department of Energy, Dow Chemical and Rockwell International lied about it. They withheld information, lied, sealed scientific findings, and otherwise refused to tell the public the truth about the plutonium in and around Rocky Flats. Cancer diagnoses and deaths were recorded in absurdly high rates, and scientists and doctors all around the world agree that plutonium was (and is) the cause.

This book terrified me. Not just the plutonium itself, but because of the lies that were created by the people we are supposed to trust to make the best decisions for us. The number of government agents and judges that lied, omitted facts, or sealed truths in top secret envelopes are all to blame for the deaths that occurred after the first whistleblowers told their stories. The Department of Energy, Dow Chemical, and Rockwell International are to blame for the shady and hurried practices that led to the insufficient handling of the deadly element. So many people are to blame, yet so many people will never ever seen reparations for their suffering.

Read this book. It skips a lot between the years, and is sometimes confusing with all of the names and dates, but it will make you more aware of what nuclear energy is really capable of – and the sacrifice we are making when we support it.

Recommended for:
Those interested in history and science will “enjoy” this novel. (You can’t/shouldn’t enjoy a novel that calls the government out for allowing Big Business to poison their citizens…) Anyone who needs to be energized (no pun intended). This book will anger you, hopefully into action.

Read-alikes:
Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters by Kate Brown – a professor at University of Maryland Baltimore Campus – “provides the first definitive account of the great plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union”.   

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot because it also combine history and science in a remarkable way.

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One thought on “review: Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen

  1. Pingback: LCPS Battle of the Books – High School edition | A Librarian's Take

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