Under The 'Nuclear Shadow' Of Colorado's Rocky Flats
Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 3:40 pm
Kristen Iversen spent years in Europe looking for things to write about before realizing that biggest story she'd ever cover was in the backyard where she grew up. Iversen spent her childhood in Colorado close to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory, playing in fields and swimming in lakes and streams that it now appears were contaminated with plutonium. Later, as a single mother, Iversen worked at the plant but knew little of its environmental and health risks until she saw a feature about it on Nightline.
Iversen's new book, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, is in part a memoir about her troubled family, and also an investigation into the decades-long environmental scandal involving nuclear contamination in and around Rocky Flats. Weapons production ended there after FBI agents raided the plant in 1989. Its operators later pleaded guilty to criminal violations of environmental law.
But during Iversen's childhood, the people living near Rocky Flats had no idea that plutonium bomb components were being constructed so close to their homes — or that radioactive waste was leaking into the surrounding environment. The plant's day-to-day activities were highly secretive. So secretive, in fact, that Iversen's family didn't know what their neighbors who worked at the plant did for a living.
"The rumor in the neighborhood was that they were making cleaning supplies," says Iversen. "My mother thought they were making Scrubbing Bubbles."
Instead, the plant was manufacturing balls of plutonium that were integral to creating nuclear chain reactions. Workers at the plant manipulated plutonium using lead-lined gloves that were attached to stainless steel boxes. The plutonium was then shipped to a facility in Texas, where it was encased in conventional explosives and made into bombs.
Iversen notes that plutonium, which contains alpha particles, is extremely dangerous to humans if ingested or inhaled.
"If it is inhaled into the lungs — and very, very tiny particles can be inhaled into the lungs — it can lodge in lung tissue and it creates a constant and ongoing source of radiation," says Iversen. "So that's where we see lung cancer and various other health effects."
Accidents At Rocky Flats
Over the course of Rocky Flats' history, there were several accidents that sent radioactive particulates into the atmosphere. On several occasions, barrels of radioactive waste were found to be leaking into open fields. And fires in 1957 and 1969 at the plant sent plumes of radioactive material over the Denver metro area.
"One of the most important things about the fire [in 1969] that we didn't know about was that it burned out all of the filters and the measuring equipment so we still don't know how much plutonium and other radioactive material was released into the environment," says Iversen. "But the really dramatic part is that the building got so hot that it started to melt the roof. The roof started to rise like a marshmallow bubble, and if that roof had actually been breached, we would have had an accident of catastrophic effect, something along the lines of Chernobyl, in the Denver area and beyond."
Even though the event was not catastrophic on the scale of Chernobyl, it was still the costliest industrial accident to ever occur in the United States. The cleanup from the accident took over two years.
"Plutonium particles were found at an elementary school 12 miles away," says Iversen. "There was plutonium and radioactive particles found throughout the Denver metro area."
The fire led to safety upgrades on site at Rocky Flats. It also increased public scrutiny. Throughout the 1970s, protesters began to flock to Rocky Flats to bring attention to the environmental and health hazards posed by the plant. They began asking questions about where the radioactive contamination at the plant had originated.
"And the Department of Energy admitted, 'Yes, there is contamination off-site but it's not from the 1969 fire. It's from a 1957 fire. We don't know how much contamination escaped from that fire,' " says Iversen. And the Department of Energy also said, " 'It's also from barrels, on what's been called the 903 pad.' There were 3,000 barrels filled with radioactive material, liquid and solid waste — primarily plutonium — and they stood out in the open for 11 years from 1959 to 1970. And the bottoms of the barrels rusted out and all of that stuff got into the local water supply."
The protests continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in the late '80s, the Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI began working with whistle-blowers to investigate unsafe conditions at the plant. The FBI started flying covertly over the plant at night to measure airborne contamination. In 1989, after several years of investigation, the FBI and the EPA raided Rocky Flats.
"I believe it was the first and only time two government agencies have raided another," says Iversen. "The EPA and the FBI raided the Department of Energy [which controlled the operation of the plant]."
The Grand Jury Investigation And Findings
After the raid, a grand jury investigation opened to examine what, if any, criminal wrongdoing took place at the site. The grand jury recommended indictments for the Department of Energy officials controlling the site as well for as Rockwell officials, who were contracted to run day-to-day operations.
"But what happened was that a deal was cut with Rockwell," says Iversen. "There were no indictments and the grand jurors, after having met for 21 months, were infuriated that there were no indictments and there was not going to be any responsibility here or any transparency for what was actually happening."
Rockwell did plead guilty to several environmental crimes and agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine, says Iversen. But, she notes, many felt like that was not enough.
"The fine, although it was a substantial fine at the time, was almost exactly the same as the bonus that Rockwell received for that particular year for meeting production quotas," she says. "At Rocky Flats was always the highest priority and safety of workers always took second place to that. ... Part of the reason that there were no indictments was that it was argued that these were officials with the Department of Energy and Rockwell who were operating within instructions from the Department of Energy — that is, that these environmental violations were sort of OK because what is most important is the production of plutonium [parts for bombs]."
Rocky Flats halted plutonium bomb component production in 1990 and closed two years later because of safety concerns for workers and because the U.S. stopped making nuclear bombs when the Cold War ended. The DOE estimated that it would take 70 years and $30 billion to clean up the pollution at the site, but the agency accelerated those plans — and the cleanup was finished in less than 10 years.
It is now slated to eventually reopen as a wildlife refuge and public recreation area, where people will be allowed to bike, hike and possibly hunt. Iversen says she wants to make sure people know the risks they're getting into if they choose to go into the Rocky Flats area for any kind of public recreation.
"There are breathable particles of plutonium out there in various hot spots and people need to know the kind of risks they're taking if they're hiking or biking out at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge," she says. "Or if they're going to let their kindergartener or first-grader go out on a trip to Rocky Flats. People need to know what remains."
On plutonium pits, which were developed at Rocky Flats
"They're about the size of a half-grapefruit, slightly flattened, gray in color. And they were shaped and machined — there was a foundry where the plutonium was melted — and then they were shaped and machined within these glove boxes. And the process itself created a lot of dust and shavings and that sort of thing. So that was always a problem. But when a worker was finished with that particular part of the process, the plutonium pit was moved up to a conveyer line and then it went down to the next part for the next stage."
On missing plutonium at Rocky Flats
"The Department of Energy has admitted to more than 3,000 pounds of missing plutonium. It has kind of a funny acronym. It's called MUF, which stands for missing unaccounted-for plutonium. Well, where did that missing plutonium go? Three thousand pounds is a lot when you think about the fact that one-millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer or a health effect. So where was it? Well, in 1990, they revealed that 62 pounds of plutonium had been trapped in the vents and the piping between the building. That's enough for six or seven bombs right there. The Department of Energy has claimed that much of the plutonium that was missing was due to administrative errors or they put it somewhere and meant to put it somewhere else. It's just plutonium that has somehow been lost in the system. Or it could be administrative errors for part of it. I think some of it ended up in my backyard, frankly. A lot of it went out into the Denver metro area."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Kristen Iversen, spent years in Europe looking for things to write about before realizing that the biggest story she'd ever cover was in her own backyard, or more accurately the one she'd grown up in.
Iversen spent her childhood in Colorado, near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Factory, playing in fields and swimming in lakes and streams it now appears were contaminated with plutonium. Later as a single mother, Iversen worked at the plant and knew little of its environmental and health risks until she saw a feature on "Nightline."
Iversen's new book is in part a memoir about her troubled family life and also an investigation into the decades-long environmental scandal involving nuclear contamination in and around Rocky Flats. Weapons production ended there after FBI agents raided the plant in 1989, and its operators pled guilty to criminal violations of environmental law.
Kristen Iversen is director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Memphis and editor-in-chief of the literary journal The Pinch. She's the author of an earlier book, "Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth." Her new book is called "Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Kristen Iversen, welcome to FRESH AIR. When you were growing up in Colorado, how close were you and your family to the Rocky Flats facility?
KRISTEN IVERSEN: Well, we had two houses in Arvada. When I was a very small child, we had a house that was about seven miles out from the plant. And then when I was about eight years old, we moved, we had a new house out in Bridledale, one of the new subdivisions out by Rocky Flats, and we were about two and a half miles from the plant itself.
DAVIES: And you were in a neighborhood, although I gather it was what me might think of as a suburban development, that was a lot of open country, and you kind of had a country life, didn't you in a way?
IVERSEN: I did, we did, we loved it out there. My parents thought that they were raising their four children in the perfect environment, and in many ways it was the perfect environment. We had a big house and horses and dogs and cats and turtles and rabbits and tropical fish and all sorts of pets and lots of room to roam around and play.
We were near a lake, Stanley Lake, so we rode our horses in the fields and swam in the lake. And there was an irrigation ditch that I later found out came right off Rocky Flats that ran right behind our house, and we spent a lot of time floating on inner tubes down the river and that sort of thing.
DAVIES: Now, Rocky Flats was there. What did you and your family and the neighbors think was going on there?
IVERSEN: Well, we had no idea what was going on at Rocky Flats. It was all cloaked in secrecy. We knew it was there. We could see the water tower. We could see the lights at night. There were lots of rumors in the neighborhood. It was operated by Dow Chemical, and the rumor in the neighborhood was that they were making household cleaning supplies. My mother thought they were making Scrubbing Bubbles.
DAVIES: And nobody was particularly worried about anything that they might be doing?
IVERSEN: We didn't have any reason, really, to worry. We had been assured by the government, when my parents bought their house out there, they were made aware of the fact that Rocky Flats was there but that whatever was going on there was safe, and we had no reason to worry.
The other thing is that a lot of people in the neighborhood, parents of my friends, worked at Rocky Flats, and they were under an oath of secrecy to not talk about what they did, the kind of work they did. And so there was just very little information, no information and certainly no information about any kind of environmental contamination or anything like that.
DAVIES: Right, now you have since, of course, researched and reconstructed the story of this facility. You now know much more about what was going on at the time. Tell us about the origins of Rocky Flats, what its role was in the country's nuclear weapons program.
IVERSEN: Well, Rocky Flats produced plutonium pits, or triggers as they were called, for nuclear bombs for nuclear weapons. They produced the heart of every nuclear weapon in the United States. It was part of a network of 13 nuclear weapons facilities around the country, but Rocky Flats was really the main production center, the brains Los Alamos and then the pits, the triggers were actually produced at Rocky Flats.
And over the course of about 40 years, they produced 70,000 plutonium pits for nuclear bombs. The plutonium came from Hanford in Washington, and it was machined and shaped at Rocky Flats and then sent to the Pantex facility in Texas, where the triggers, the pits, were encased in conventional explosives and actually became bombs.
DAVIES: All right, so we have lots of people, like 3,500 employees there at various points, taking plutonium, which sounds awfully scary, I mean, we know it's a serious substance. Talk a little bit about the process, I mean, these glove boxes, how the employees actually made these plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.
IVERSEN: Glove boxes were in the plutonium production buildings, Building 771 at Rocky Flats, and the glove boxes were linked, stainless steel boxes, and workers shaped the plutonium by putting their hands into lead-lined gloves, and that's how they would work with the plutonium.
And it was a very dangerous process. They had to be very careful because plutonium is highly flammable. It catches fire very easily. So that was always a concern, and fires happened quite often within the glove boxes and in other places around the plant.
DAVIES: When they were manipulating this plutonium through these lead-lined gloves that they would stick into these boxes. What was the plutonium like? Was it the consistency of chalk, of Jell-O? I mean, what's it like?
IVERSEN: Well, the plutonium pits themselves are shaped from what are called plutonium buttons, and they're about the size of a half-grapefruit, slightly flattened, kind of gray in color. And they were shaped and machined. There was a foundry where the plutonium was melted, and then they were shaped and machined within these glove boxes.
And the shaping itself created a lot of dust and shavings and that sort of thing. So that was always a problem. But when a worker was finished with that particular part of the process, the plutonium pit was moved up to a conveyor line, and then it went down to the next glove box for the next stage, and it would move - it was literally an assembly line for plutonium pits.
DAVIES: Right, and when we say pits, we're not talking about like an opened container area, we're talking about a little slab of plutonium kind of milled and shaped in exactly the precise dimensions, right?
IVERSEN: Yes, exactly, and I think there were many euphemisms at Rocky Flats, but even the word pit or triggers is a bit of a euphemism. There are enough breathable particles of plutonium in each particular plutonium pit to kill every person on Earth. They're very, very dangerous, and they're an essential part of the bomb in the sense that it's not really a trigger or a starting mechanism.
There's a two-part process that happens almost simultaneously with a nuclear weapon, and the plutonium trigger creates the fission process that leads to the greater fusion process of a hydrogen bomb, and it happens almost simultaneously.
So to call a plutonium button or pit or trigger, to call it a trigger or a pit is a little bit of a euphemism. It really is, in and of itself, quite dangerous, and it creates a nuclear chain reaction.
DAVIES: Now, you said the plutonium is flammable, and I'm going to get to the consequences of that in a moment, but one of the issues that emerged over the years was that it appeared plutonium may have been lost or trapped or, you know, just remained in various places in the plant. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that? Why would there be missing or unaccounted-for plutonium in this process?
IVERSEN: Well, this is one of the most remarkable things that I discovered in my research is that the Department of Energy has admitted to more than 3,000 pounds of missing plutonium. And it has kind of a funny acronym. It's called MUF, M-U-F, which stands for missing, unaccounted-for plutonium.
Well, where did that plutonium? And 3,000 pounds is a lot when you think about the fact that one-millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer or cause a health effect. So where was it? Well, for one thing, in 1990 they revealed that 62 pounds of plutonium had been trapped in the vents, in the piping between the buildings. So that's enough for six or seven bombs right there.
The Department of Energy has claimed that much of the plutonium that is missing, it was due to administrative errors, or they put it somewhere and meant to put it somewhere else, something like that. It's just plutonium that has somehow been lost in the system within the different buildings, in the tubes and piping and all the sorts of things that ran between the buildings.
Or it could be administrative errors for part of it. I think some of it ended up in my backyard, frankly. A lot of it went out into the Denver metro area.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that in a moment. But in what ways is plutonium dangerous to humans? I mean, is it - does it get inhaled? Does it get ingested?
IVERSEN: Well, plutonium emits alpha radiation, and that is particularly dangerous if it's ingested into the body or inhaled into the body. So if you have an open wound or any sort of cut on the skin, it can enter the body that way, and that can be very dangerous.
But the most dangerous plutonium that if it is inhaled into the lungs - and very, very tiny particles can be inhaled into the lungs - it can lodge in lung tissue, and it creates a constant and ongoing source of radiation. And so that's where we see lung cancer and various other health effects.
DAVIES: Now, you mentioned that plutonium is flammable, and you describe a horrific fire that occurred there in 1969. It wasn't the first one. But do you want to just talk about that event in 1969? What happened?
IVERSEN: The 1969 fire happened in a line of glove boxes. It was a devastating fire. It sent a radioactive cloud over the Denver metro area as we were having Sunday brunch, and I think one of the most important things about that fire that we didn't know about is that it burned out all of the filters, and it burned out the measuring equipment. So we still don't know how much plutonium and other toxic and radioactive material was released into the environment.
But the really dramatic part is that the building got so hot, and they couldn't control the fire, that it literally almost melted the roof. The roof began to rise like a marshmallow bubble, and if that roof had actually been breached and broken, we would have had an accident of catastrophic effect, something along the lines of Chernobyl, in the Denver area and beyond.
And the only reason that we did not have that happen was due to the number of very brave firefighters, a couple of which I talk about in my book, Stan Skinger(ph) and Bill Dennison(ph), who literally risked their lives to go into that building and then other firefighters who went up on the roof and used water to cool the roof down so that it didn't actually break, although it came very, very close.
And the thing about plutonium is that you can't use water on a plutonium fire because you run the risk of creating a criticality or a nuclear chain reaction. So it was a very, very touchy thing.
DAVIES: This fire began in one of these glove boxes, where these employees manipulate plutonium through these lead-lined gloves. And there was some little thing that caused a spark, the plutonium went up, and one of the things you write about was the risk of a blue flash. What is that?
IVERSEN: That is a criticality, and what would happen with that sort of event is that everyone within the most immediate area would be probably killed, and then there could be consequences beyond that immediate area, depending upon how things happened there. But when Bill Dennison and Stan Skinger were in the building fighting the fire, they had to go down into what they called sheep dips.
There was a little tunnel under each glove box that would contain water or any other things coming out of that area, and when they used water on the fire, the water collected in these shallow areas, these little tunneled areas under each glove box. And they had to wade down into that water to get to the other side, to where the foundry line was, where the fire was really happening.
And so it was very dangerous for them to do that, and they were very worried about what was in the water and if some of the plutonium pits or triggers or buttons had actually fallen down into the water, in which case there would be a blue flash, and that would be it.
DAVIES: So there was this horrific fire in 1969. And even though there wasn't this catastrophic event of a criticality and, you know, huge amounts of plutonium floating over Denver, it was not without environmental impact, right?
IVERSEN: Absolutely, and there environmental consequences throughout the Denver metro area, most particularly in the areas near Rocky Flats: Arvada in particular. Plutonium particles were found at an elementary school 12 miles away. There was plutonium and toxic - radioactive and toxic contamination of various levels throughout the Denver metro area.
One of things that Dr. John Cobb(ph), who was a professor at the University of Colorado Medical School, who was under contract with the EPA later to do research on the effects of plutonium on human tissue, he studied 450 bodies of people who had lived around Rocky Flats, and he found plutonium in their lung and liver tissue.
And this is a rather inflammatory statement, but this is what he said: To rid the Denver metro area of detectable amounts of plutonium from these fires and leaking oil barrels in particular, to rid the Denver metro area of detectable amounts of plutonium in the soil would mean taking up all the soil and buildings in Denver.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kristen Iversen. Her new book is "Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." We'll talk more after a short break; this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Kristen Iversen. She's written a book about her experiences growing up near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility. It's called "Full Body Burden."
Now, you weren't worried about Rocky Flats as a kid, but you did have a lot of concerns about your family. You had a brother and two sisters, right? There were four of you, is that right?
IVERSEN: Right, that's right.
DAVIES: And your mom and your dad. And your dad's behavior troubled you. Do you want to just talk about what his relationship was with the family?
IVERSEN: You know, my father is I think a very smart and complicated man. He was an attorney. He had graduated at the top of his law class and started his own law practice. One of the things that happened that was very difficult for him, he eventually became an alcoholic with really devastating consequences for his law practice and for the family, particularly for the family.
And I grew up in a Scandinavian family, my mother is of Norwegian descent, and my father is Danish, and I think it's true for Scandinavian families but perhaps true for all families, particularly during this point in time, that you don't talk about problems. If anything is wrong or troubling, you don't say anything. You're expected to look the other way, and were not supposed to talk about it, we were not supposed to notice it.
DAVIES: And over time, I mean, there were real incidents. I mean, he would be involved in car accidents, there were some DUI arrests, and then there was the time he was driving with all of you, pulling the horse trailer. Do you want to describe that moment?
IVERSEN: Yeah, that was a very difficult time. My sister Carmen(ph) and I in particular were really involved in horse shows and gymkhanas and that sort of thing. I was a barrel racer. We would spend Saturdays going to these gymkhanas. And it was a Saturday morning. We got the horses ready, Tonka(ph) and Comanche(ph) and loaded them up into the horse trailer, and the plan was that my father would drive us to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds for the gymkhana and then drop us off, and he would go in to work, as he usually did on Saturdays, or Saturday mornings.
And it wasn't apparent to us that we think he probably had been drinking, and what happened with the horse trailer and the truck, we came up over a little rise and came down, and the car swerved, and there was an accident. The truck and the horse trailer rolled over several times, and the Blazer in which we were riding, the roof was crushed.
So I guess we were very lucky that none of us were killed or seriously hurt. The horses were knocked unconscious, and we were able to get them out with the help of a passerby. My father was injured. His back was injured, and my sister and I were injured as well, although we didn't know it at the time. We weren't taken to the hospital or anything like that at the time.
And it wasn't until years later, after I had struggled for a long time with headaches and pain in my neck, which I thought came from reading so many books and studying so much and that sort of thing, but actually it turned out that I had a double fracture in my neck. I'd had a broken neck for years and didn't know about it.
So I have to say writing about this incident and bringing it up in the book, it was interesting because in my family, we had all suppressed that incident so profoundly that it was a real moment of awakening to say hey, look, did this really happen? What happened? And how are we going to talk about it? How are we going to deal with it as a family?
DAVIES: Right, you have your neck broken, and you don't go to the hospital, and nobody talks about it.
DAVIES: Have you talked with your dad about it since?
IVERSEN: Yes, I think one of the - you know, this book really is a book of my own sense of awakening in terms of what happened at Rocky Flats and also what happened, you know, with my family and my relationship with my father. He's still alive, and we're in contact, and I think we have a better relationship now than we have had in years. We're certainly in more communication.
And there's a moment at the end of the book where I do bring up what happened, and my father and my sister Carmen and I are having pizza, and, you know, I said: Do you remember what happened here? And we're able to talk about it. And there's a moment of understanding and acknowledgement there that I think certainly was very profound for me.
DAVIES: You know, it's - I guess it's obvious, but I have to note the parallel between you have this situation in your family where people are, you know, hurt and damaged in some ways, but the issues aren't talked about, they're minimized. People don't - they remain silent about them, not unlike what's going on in the community, where people are being damaged and endangered by this nuclear facility, And its operators in the government don't talk about it.
IVERSEN: Well, I think one of the things that I wanted to write about was the cost of secrecy and denial and suppression and how important it is to be able to talk about things and have open disclosure at the level of family, at the level of community and even at the level of government.
We ideally should have been able to talk about these things in my family when I was young, when we all were young. I think it would have made a profound difference for all of us if we had been able to face these issues more directly, and certainly with respect to Rocky Flats and everything that was happening with the Department of Energy and all that, everything was cloaked behind a veil of secrecy because of the Cold War, because of national defense but also long after that point.
And we had no idea, and I think people, in a democracy, people deserve the right to know if their health is being put at risk in some way.
GROSS: Kristen Iversen will talk more with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the conversation FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Kristen Iversen, author of the new book "Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." She grew up in the '60s, near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory in Colorado. She later learned that areas in and around Rocky Flats were contaminated with plutonium. Her book is, in part, about the investigation into the decades-long environmental scandal involving nuclear contamination in and around Rocky Flats.
DAVIES: Well, in the '50s and '60s, I mean, you know, the United States was preoccupied with the Cold War, and people didn't question the government quite so much. And so the events at Rocky Flats didn't get a lot of scrutiny. That changed in the 1970s.
And there were some studies. There were public concerns raised about the health impacts of the plant and protests outside the plant. People were arrested. There were sit-ins. This is a fascinating story, and there isn't time for us to go (technical difficulties). Maybe you could mention a couple of the studies, a couple of the events that are more troubling that were - that emerged about the environmental and health impacts of what was going on at Rocky Flats - the barrels, perhaps, the barrels, leaking barrels.
IVERSEN: Well, one of the more shocking aspects of the story about Rocky Flats is after the 1969 fire, you know, people started to pay attention to what was happening out there, and that's when you start to see some of the protests which really come to a head in the late 1970s. It takes a while for people to really get enough information and react to the situation. But after the 1969 fire, it was proven that there was plutonium and radioactive contamination off-site and, in fact, as far as 30 miles away from Rocky Flats.
And so scientists said: Why? You know, where is this coming from? Is it from the 1969 fire? And the Department of Energy was put in a rather extraordinary position of saying - of admitting, well, yes. There is contamination off-site, but it's not from the 1969 fire. It's from the 1957 five. We don't know how much contamination escaped during that fire, and so also from these barrels on what's been called the 903 pad.
There were 5,000 barrels filled with radioactive material, liquid and solid waste, primarily plutonium, and they stood out in the open for 11 years, from 1959 to 1970. And there are photos - you can see the photos of these barrels. The bottoms of the barrels literally rusted out, and all of that stuff got down into the water table into Walnut Creek and Woman Creek, and it entered the local water supply. And so that's a really devastating source of contamination.
And to give you an idea, the state standard for plutonium in Colorado is two disintegrations per minute, per gram of soil. Under those barrels, they measured 30 million disintegrations per minute, or 15 million times higher than the state standard. So it was really stunning, and they stood out there for 11 years.
DAVIES: One of the remarkable parts of the story is the FBI raiding, essentially, a federally-run installation. Two critical guys here are an FBI agent named Jon Lipsky and in EPA investigator named William Smith. What were they interested in? What got this to the point of a criminal investigation?
IVERSEN: Well, there was - for one thing, there was a worker named Jim Stone who's very important to the story. He had worked at Rocky Flats in the very beginning and seen some of the things that happened. For one thing, the site was located in the wrong place. The engineering criteria stated that it should be located far from a metro area or a large population, and there was a mistake in the engineering report. They read the wind patterns at Stapleton Airport instead out at Rocky Flats, where the Chinook winds come off the mountains and sweep right across the Rocky Flats site in Arvada and into the Denver metro area.
So Jim Stone was aware of the problems right from the very beginning. He was the first informant - a whistleblower, really - and talked to Jon Lipsky and the FBI and the EPA about some of the problems at Rocky Flats, and, of course, many people have started to become concerned.
DAVIES: A critical piece of this was an incinerator, right, on the Rocky Flats facility, at which plutonium waste might have been burning, right? So it wasn't supposed to be operating. Is that right?
IVERSEN: Yes. That incinerator was built in 1958, and it operated for decades. They burned Plutonium-contaminated waste and other contaminants, and that smoke went right up into the air and around the Denver metro area. And Jon Lipsky, the FBI and the EPA suspected that this was going on, and so they flew an airplane over the site to take infrared photography to see if they could determine if there was indeed airborne contamination going out into the environment.
And based on the photography that they shot from that airplane three times over the site, they found that they thought that that was very likely. And so then that initiated the process for the raid. The raid happened on June 6th, 1989, and I believe it was the first and only time in this country that two government agencies have raided another. The EPA and the FBI raided the Department of Energy.
DAVIES: So there's this extraordinary event in June of 1989, when a swarm of FBI agents enter this plant and start carting out documents despite the protestations of the folks at - I guess it's Rockwell that was running the plant then.
DAVIES: They take this material to a grand jury and they present it before this panel of citizens, who sit for, I guess, more than a year, hearing all of this evidence that there was contamination, that there were doctoring of records, et cetera, et cetera. What, in the end, did the grand jury do?
IVERSEN: Well, the grand jury had met for 21 months and listened to hundreds of witnesses and a great amount of material, and they recommended indictments of Department of Energy officials and Rockwell. And they wanted the plant to be called to task, and most importantly, they wanted local residents to be aware of what was - what had happened at the plant and what was ongoing at the plant, particularly this incinerator that didn't have a permit, was inappropriately permitted and was putting out all of this radiation and toxic material into the environment.
But what happened was that a deal was cut with Rockwell. There were no indictments, and the grand jurors, after having met for 21 months and hearing all of this evidence, they were infuriated that there were no indictments and there was not really going to be any responsibility taken here or any transparency with respect to what was actually happening.
So the grand jurors decided to write their own grand jury report, which they did, and the judge refused to accept it, refused to have it released to the public. And so that grand jury report still, to the present day, is sealed, and that information is not available, has not been available to the public or even for the cleanup at Rocky Flats. That information and all the boxes related to the grand jury investigation are sealed, still sealed to the present day.
DAVIES: All right, now, just to be clear here, I mean, it's often the case in a criminal investigation that once a grand jury has heard evidence, that a defendant and his attorney, or the company's attorney, will make a - reach an arrangement with the government to avoid the expense of a trial and plead guilty to certain things. And that happened here. I mean, Rockwell pled guilty to five felony and five misdemeanor criminal violations of federal environmental law, agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine. So it wasn't as if they suffered no consequences. So what did the FBI agent, Agent Lipsky and the grand jurors find so troubling? Why was that not enough?
IVERSEN: Well, I think, for one thing, the fine - although it was a substantial fine at the time, I think it's important to realize that it was also almost exactly the same as the bonus that Rockwell received for that particular year for meeting production quotas. And I...
DAVIES: The bonus from the federal government for manufacturing the weapons.
IVERSEN: Exactly. And at Rocky Flats, production was always the highest priority, and safety of workers and certainly of local residents in their surrounding communities always took second place to that. Production was the most important thing.
And so I think the grand jurors were very troubled by that, and the fact that people didn't - that people weren't aware of that, and most of all that it was ongoing, and that there was a culture of secrecy and complicity in the sense that part of the reason why there were no indictments was that it was argued that these were officials with the Department of Energy and with Rockwell who were operating within instructions from the Department of Energy, from the higher-ups.
That is, that these environmental violations are sort of OK. We're going to look the other way. We're going to allow them to happen, because what is most important is the production of plutonium pits. And so the jurors were very upset about that, that residents and workers had been put at risk in terms of their health and safety for production, and people didn't know.
DAVIES: So the grand jury report that the jurors insisted on writing was not released by the judge. It remained sealed. All of the exhibits remain sealed. But some of the material did - was leaked to the media, right?
IVERSEN: Right. Some of the jurors - a majority of them, in fact - were so outraged. Parts of it, they did appear on television and radio, to a certain extent, although they were very limited in what they could say, or else they could be thrown in jail because it was, again, a grand jury investigation. So everything is supposed to remain secret. So they were put in a very difficult position in terms of how to deal with this.
But there was some information leaked to the press on both sides of that case, actually. And the grand jury report itself, parts of it appeared in a couple of newspapers, a local paper called Westword, in particular. There were excerpts in Harpers and other national magazines. And then eventually, many years later, Judge Sherman Finesilver did release a report that was very heavily edited. I think that people can actually see this on the Internet, but there was a lot of things blacked out on that report. It's very heavily edited, with commentary by the Justice Department. So even to the present day, the full report is not available.
DAVIES: Now, what was the impact of the investigation on the operation of Rocky Flats?
IVERSEN: Well, what happened was by 1990, Rocky Flats ended, or it halted pit production. It was considered to be sort of a temporary stoppage. In fact, even when I worked out at Rocky Flats in 1994 and 1995, there was talk about, well, maybe eventually we'll get things going again.
But the problem for the nuclear weapons facilities around the country and for national defense, Rocky Flats was the only facility that produced plutonium pits for nuclear bombs, and we had lots them. I'm not sure how many more we needed. But that all kind of came to a halt in 1990, and the plant moved into a kind of a modified cleanup mode, which was what was going on when I was working out at the plant. And then it did eventually close, for a number of reasons: a change in our focus in terms of national defense, and also I think citizen action and the activists and all of the awareness brought to Rocky Flats and all the environmental and cultural problems it represented. I think citizen activism really made a difference with the closing of the plant.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kristen Iversen. Her new book is "Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Kristen Iversen. She's written a book about her experiences growing up near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. It's called "Full Body Burden."
So what's become of the site today?
IVERSEN: Well, the site is currently closed, but it is slated to open as a wildlife refuge and public recreation area. There was a very controversial cleanup. In 1995, the Department of Energy estimated that it would take 70 years and $36 billion to do this cleanup. And then that was adjusted in 1995, when I was working out at the plant, and the company Kaiser Hill came in and said, we can do this cleanup by 2006, in 10 years, less than 10 years, for only $7 billion - a much-reduced cost.
And even of that $7 billion, only 7 percent of that total went for soil and water cleanup. But the cleanup levels are very controversial. Cleanup levels were based not on what would be safe for people to live or work on at the site, but what would be relatively safe for a seasonal wildlife refuge worker. And they're based on what's called RSAL, Radionuclide Soil Action Level levels for plutonium, and they're very high at Rocky Flats.
Risk Assessment Corporation had recommended no more than 35 picocuries per gram. What the cleanup stands at now is that at the top, for the top three feet of soil, there's 50 picocuries per gram of soil. From three to six feet, 3,000 to 7,000 picocuries per gram, and no limit below six feet, despite the fact that many of the lower floors of the buildings and basements and pipes, you know, a lot of that stuff still remains.
DAVIES: Just to clarify here, because the numbers can be confusing.
DAVIES: There's a lot of contamination deep within the soil.
IVERSEN: There's a lot of contamination deep within the soil. Thirteen hundred acres of the site are so profoundly contaminated that they can never open for human habitation or no human access. And that has been sealed off. The rest of the site is slated to open for public recreation and hiking, biking, and possibly even hunting.
Even though studies have shown that deer out at the site have plutonium in their bodies and there's plutonium uptake in the grass. And then of course I think the most dangerous thing out there and the thing that people really need to know about is that there are breathable particles of plutonium out there in various hot spots and areas.
And people need to know the kind of risk that they're going to take if they decide to (technical difficulty) at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge or if they're going to allow their, you know, kindergartner or first grader to go on a school field trip out to Rocky Flats. People need to know the story and people need to know what remains.
DAVIES: You and your brother and sisters have had health symptoms that you've never quite figured out the cause of, too, right?
IVERSEN: Yeah. We've had some scares with cancer. I had a scare with lymphoma. My sister, Karma, has had a couple of cancer scares. Not anything like some of the families in our neighborhood and some of the families that I profile in the book who have had really profound problems with cancers, brain tumors, thyroid cancer, various things.
But the interesting thing is that we've had ongoing kind of chronic symptoms, kind of like chronic fatigue, immune system issues, rheumatoid arthritis. My brother deals with that although he's too young really that he should have to be dealing with something like that.
And I think that's very common for people in that area. There are repeated studies that shown higher rates of leukemia and various types of cancers, including lung cancer in particular, brain tumors, that sort of thing. And leukemia. After the 1957 fire there was a big jump in leukemia in children after that fire in particular.
So there have been ongoing problems. But then there's this kind of, you know, you can't really pin it down - a kind of chronic problem that my family has dealt with and I know other people in the surrounding area have dealt with that as well.
DAVIES: Before I let you go I want you to tell the story about your brother taking his dogs to the lake; recent story.
IVERSEN: Uh-huh. Well, I have family who, until very recently, actually still lived out by Rocky Flats and I would say it's our home; we loved that land. It's beautiful, a beautiful part of the country. And Standley Lake is a very pretty lake and my brother Kurt was out walking with his wife Cindy and their lab, their big yellow lab. And they like to let their dogs swim in the lake.
We used to swim in the lake with our horses when we were kids and our dogs. They let the dog swim in the lake and a boat came around - a patrol boat came around and a guy with a megaphone said get your dog out of the water. And Kurt laughed. I have a very funny family. I'm not sure that comes through the book. But he laughed and he said what are you talking about? You know, he said, well, it provides water for the surrounding community; we can't have dogs in the lake. And Kurt just laughed. He said, the dog hair is going to affect the water supply? Well, it turned out that there is plutonium in the sediment at Standley Lake to the present day and you're not supposed to get in there and churn it up in any way because it brings the plutonium particles up into the water.
So they don't like people, you know, swimming right near the edge where they can churn things up, or dogs, you know, that kind of dig in the mud a little bit. They don't want all of that plutonium churned up into the water. But it's there, and there's no signs. There are no signs or any sort of indication to people who swim or go water skiing at that lake that there's plutonium in the sediment.
DAVIES: So Standley Lake is used as a water source but it's considered safe because the plutonium is in the sediment? Is that your understanding?
IVERSEN: Yes. That's correct. The plutonium is expected to stay in the sediment.
DAVIES: Well, Kristen Iversen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
IVERSEN: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Kristen Iversen spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Iversen's new book is called "Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by a jazz harpist who Kevin says can make you rethink what the instrument can do. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.