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4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 4.00 (659 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Kristen Iversen Narrator: Kristen Iversen, Kirsten Potter Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: June 2012 ISBN: 9780449009673
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Full Body Burden is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman, Kristen Iversen, growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated "the most contaminated site in America." It's the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and--unknown to those who lived there--tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.

It's also a book about the destructive power of secrets--both family and government. Her father's hidden liquor bottles, the strange cancers in children in the neighborhood, the truth about what was made at Rocky Flats (cleaning supplies, her mother guessed)--best not to inquire too deeply into any of it.

But as Iversen grew older, she began to ask questions. She learned about the infamous 1969 Mother's Day fire, in which a few scraps of plutonium spontaneously ignited and--despite the desperate efforts of firefighters--came perilously close to a "criticality," the deadly blue flash that signals a nuclear chain reaction. Intense heat and radiation almost melted the roof, which nearly resulted in an explosion that would have had devastating consequences for the entire Denver metro area. Yet the only mention of the fire was on page 28 of the Rocky Mountain News, underneath a photo of the Pet of the Week. In her early thirties, Iversen even worked at Rocky Flats for a time, typing up memos in which accidents were always called "incidents."

And as this memoir unfolds, it reveals itself as a brilliant work of investigative journalism--a detailed and shocking account of the government's sustained attempt to conceal the effects of the toxic and radioactive waste released by Rocky Flats, and of local residents' vain attempts to seek justice in court. Here, too, are vivid portraits of former Rocky Flats workers--from the healthy, who regard their work at the plant with pride and patriotism, to the ill or dying, who battle for compensation for cancers they got on the job.

Based on extensive interviews, FBI and EPA documents, and class-action testimony, this taut, beautifully written book promises to have a very long half-life.

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Quotes & Awards

  • "Full Body Burden is one of the most important stories of the nuclear era--as personal and powerful as "Silkwood," told with the suspense and narrative drive of The Hot Zone. With unflinching honesty, Kristen Iverson has written an intimate and deeply human memoir that shows why we should all be concerned about nuclear safety, and the dangers of ignoring science in the name of national security. Rocky Flats needs to be part of the same nuclear discussion as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. So does Full Body Burden. It's an essential and unforgettable book that should be talked about in schools and book clubs, online and in the White House. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • What a surprise! You don't expect such (unobtrusively) beautiful writing in a book about nuclear weapons, nor such captivating storytelling. Plus the facts are solid and the science told in colloquial but never dumbed-down terms. If I could afford them, I'd want the movie rights. Having read scores of nuclear books, I venture a large claim: Kristin Iversen's Full Body Burden may be a classic of nuclear literature, filling a gap we didn't know existed among Hersey's Hiroshima, Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe and Kohn's Who Killed Karen Silkwood?
    Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc. and HOT
  • This terrifyingly brilliant book--as perfectly crafted and meticulously assembled as the nuclear bomb triggers that lie at its core--is a savage indictment of the American strategic weapons industry, both haunting in its power, and yet wonderfully, charmingly human as a memoir of growing up in the Atomic Age. Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlantic
  • Why didn't Poe or Hitchcock think of this? Full Body Burden has all the elements of a classic horror tale: the charming nuclear family cruising innocently above the undercurrents of nuclear nightmare. But it's true and all the more chilling. Kristen Iversen has lived this life and is an authority on the culture of secrecy that has prevented the nation from knowing the truth about radioactive contamination. This is a gripping and scary story. Bobbie Ann Mason, author of Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country 
  • Kristen Iversen has written a hauntingly beautiful memoir that is also a devastating investigation into the human costs of building and living with the atomic bomb. Poignant and gracefully written, Iversen shows us what it meant to come of age next door to Rocky Flats--America’s plutonium bomb factory. The story is at once terrifying and outrageous. Kai Bird, co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • “Ms. Iverson has delivered an intimate history of the environmental abuses at Rocky Flats…[Full Body Burden] becomes a potent examination of the dangers of secrecy.”

    New York Times

  • The fight over Rocky Flats was and is a paradigmatic American battle, of corporate and government power set against the bravery and anger of normal people. This is a powerful and beautiful account, of great use to all of us who will fight the battles that lie ahead. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth
  • Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Full Body Burden is a tale that will haunt your dreams. It's a story of secrecy, deceit, and betrayal set in the majestic high plains of Colorado. Kristen Iversen takes us behind her family's closed doors and beyond the security fences and the armed guards at Rocky Flats. She's as honest and restrained in her portrait of a family in crisis as she is in documenting the incomprehensible betrayal of citizens by their government, in exposing the harrowing disregard for public safety exhibited by the technocrats in charge of a top-secret nuclear weapons facility. For decades the question asked by residents living downwind of the plant was 'Would my government deliberately put my life and the lives of my children in danger?' The simple and irrefutable answer was 'Yes, it would . . . in a Colorado minute.' John Dufresne, author of Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little
  • This is a subject as grippingly immediate as today's headlines: While there is alarm about the small rise in radioactivity in the food chain, one reads in these pages about how a whole region lived in the steady contaminating effects of nuclear radiation. Kristen Iversen's prose is clean and clear and lovely, and her story is deeply involving and full of insight and knowledge; it begins in innocence, and moves through catastrophes; it is unflinching and brave, an expose about ignorance and denial and the cost of government excess, and an intensely personal portrait of a family. It ought to be required reading for every single legislator in this country. Richard Bausch, author of Peace and Something Is Out There
  • “Iversen writes her 50-year account in the present tense, a choice that lends her narrative a crackling immediacy. She writes with an eloquent precision, surprises frequently with personal anecdotes and abrupt, savory transitions. The result is fiercely non-polemical, nuanced, and ultimately fully convincing…Iversen’s account of two fires at the plant separated by 30 years, one of which nearly went critical, sears with first-person, real-time immediacy…Resonates with deep personal honesty…When she writes about the historical actors outside her personal orbit it is with a clarity of purpose and an economy of motion…Iversen has left us a beautiful memoir that recognizes the inevitable intrusion of greater social forces in all our lives and the risk we take in ignoring them.”

    Denver Post

  • “Iversen’s reporting, extensive interviews, and review of FBI and EPA documents show how classifying a toxic nuclear site led to the ruin of hundreds of lives—and continues to pose ever-escalating threats as the legacy of what we know about such nuclear contamination is being swept under the rug by developers, energy lobbyists, and government agencies colluding with them, at the risk of exposing more of us, more severely.”

    Guardian (UK)

  • “In this powerful work of research and personal testimony, Iversen chronicles the story of America’s willfully blinkered relationship to the nuclear weapons industry through the haunting experience of her own family in Colorado…The grief was ongoing, as Iversen renders in her masterly use of the present tense, conveying tremendous suspense and impressive control of her material.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “Iversen seems to have been destined to write this shocking and infuriating story of a glorious land and a trusting citizenry poisoned by Cold War militarism and ‘hot’ contamination, secrets and lies, greed and denial…News stories come and go. It takes a book of this exceptional caliber to focus our attention and marshal our collective commitment to preventing future nuclear horrors.”

    Booklist (starred review)

  • “Superbly crafted tale of Cold War America’s dark underside.”

    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  • “With meticulous reporting and a clear eye for details, Iversen has crafted a chilling, brilliantly written cautionary tale about the dangers of blind trust. Through interviews, sifting through thousands of records (some remain sealed), and even a stint as a Rocky Flats receptionist, she uncovers decades of governmental deception. Full Body Burden is both an engrossing memoir and a powerful piece of investigative journalism.”


  • Nominated for the 2012 Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Nonfiction
  • One of the 2012 Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books for Nonfiction
  • A Finalist for the 2012 Carnegie Medal for Literature
  • A Finalist of the 2012 Colorado Book Award
  • A 2012 American Library Association Best Book

Listener Opinions

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Warren Perry | 2/18/2014

    " I added this book to the syllabus of the senior seminar I teach at Catholic University. It brings us forward from chapter 13 in Carl Sagan's Cosmos and shows us what living under the nuclear cloud for the past seventy years has come to entail. Iversen tells the story of the Rocky Flats community that sustains generations of problems as a result of the Rocky Flats nuclear production facility-- a plant that manufactures triggers for atomic bombs. The number of problems the plant brings to the community is stunning, as is the government's complicity in the long term damages which occur in this little suburb. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Honey | 2/11/2014

    " This was an interesting read. Hard to imagine no one knew (or wasn't honest about) the damaging affects of the plutonium... "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Stephanie | 2/5/2014

    " This book artfully weaves memoir, investigative journalism, and science writing. It's a must-read for anyone living in Colorado or interested in environmental justice. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Tracy | 2/5/2014

    " A somewhat long, sometimes confusing book about a nuclear plant in Colorado. Leaky barrels of plutonium, fires releasing chemicals in the air. A housing development downwind of the plant that most people believe makes cleaning supplies! Interesting read - could work for a nonfiction read for high school/common core. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Lindsey | 1/25/2014

    " Hmmm, so all the other reviews are singing this book's praises, but I thought it was lacking. The book features two inter-connecting stories: a rather typical coming-of-age story and the terrible history of contamination by a facility making plutonium buttons for nuclear weapons. The coming-of-age story is well written but something you've read a hundred times before (title character feels isolated, different; her father is an alcoholic and her mother suffers from regret and depression). The pieces about the toxic contamination is told like a series of facts without any narrative momentum - it was like reading transcripts most of the time. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Pancha | 1/14/2014

    " This is both a memoir and a history/expose of the Rocky Flats factory, and the two separate narrative compliment each other well. At times it felt like reading a horror story, knowing something evil was lurking nearby while the characters have no idea of what is coming for them. It was also incredibly frustrating and disheartening to read about how poorly and at times criminally (in a moral if not strictly legal sense) the situation has been handled by the government. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Jennifer | 1/10/2014

    " Before reading this book I had never even heard of Rocky Flats. It amazed me that there was and still is this place that so many people are unaware of yet the impact is felt by such a large portion of the country. Full Body Burden is the true story of regular people that have the misfortune of living in the wrong place at the wrong time and the government actions that cause it all. Although I enjoyed reading it, I would have liked to read more about the lives of everyone involved. There were several times that I lost interest because of all the talk about studies and reports and test results and various government agencies. Sometimes it seemed like the story got lost in the all facts and figures but after a few pages I would get drawn back in by the story of someone else affected or an event that happened. It took me a while to get through the book but I'm glad I read it. This book does something that is important... It makes you think. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Kevin | 1/8/2014

    " This book is crazy to think about but everyone should read. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Jenny | 12/14/2013

    " This combination memoir and investigative journalism is an excellent overview of the operation of the life of a nuclear weapons plant and the impact it had on the people who lived nearby. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Anna | 12/5/2013

    " I think the subject matter was incredibly interesting, especially given that I live in Colorado and knew very little about Rocky Flats. I did feel the author droned on a bit and sometimes I really had to fight get through her writing which was a bit boring. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Todd Salzer | 10/10/2013

    " I loved this book. Enlightening look at the history of Arvada and Rocky Flats. A must read for those in Five Parks and the Standley Lake area. Don't look now, more houses going up in the fallout area. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Christy Allen | 9/10/2013

    " This is some scary shit, especially living here in Colorado. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Kayne | 8/25/2013

    " Jeez! How scary! Full of frightening information, but a well-told story and definitely worth reading. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Kevin Lambert | 12/2/2012

    " An absolute must read. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 M | 8/7/2012

    " Interesting mix of family memoir and a look at the ongoing government secrecy & denial re. Rocky Flats. Although filled with research, the focus on the people involved keeps it from being a recitation of dry facts. "

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About the Author

Kristen Iversen grew up in Arvada, Colorado near the Rocky Flats nuclear weaponry facility and received a PhD in English from the University of Denver. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, and many other journals and publications. She has appeared on C-Span and NPR’s Fresh Air, and has worked extensively with A&E Biography, the History Channel, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is an associate professor at the University of Memphis, where she directs the MFA program in creative writing. She has won a Colorado Book Award for Biography and the Barbara Sudler Award for Nonfiction. She has two sons and currently lives in Memphis.

About the Narrator

Kirsten Potter, who graduated with highest honors from Boston University, has narrated numerous audiobooks and has performed for television and in theaters across the country. She has won several awards, including more than a dozen AudioFile Earphones Awards, and been a three-time finalist for the prestigious Audie Award for best narration. Her work has been recognized by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and by AudioFile magazine, among many others. She has alsoperformed on stage, film, and television, including roles on Medium, Bones, and Judging Amy.