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Kristen Iversen


As the crow flies, Kristen Iversen grew up three miles from Rocky Flats, a place that by nature has always been shrouded in mystery. When the Dow Chemical-operated plant was first built in 1952, her mother thought they were making “Scrubbing Bubbles.” Other neighbors guessed it was doorknobs. In fact, the plant was making the heart of every nuclear weapon in the country on assembly lines where workers molded plutonium through lead-lined gloves. No one knew how narrowly Colorado escaped a Chernobyl-like catastrophe during a 1969 fire until a joint FBI-EPA raid 20 years later would expose what was really being produced at Rocky Flats. Iversen, a former employee and author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up Under the Nuclear Shadow, writes about digging up this remarkable truth in her own backyard, and talks to YS about why Rocky Flats is still shrouded in secrecy today.

“Rocky Flats was the key to the whole nuclear weapon’s program. There were 13 facilities around the U.S. that were part of the nuclear weapons program. Rocky Flats was the only facility that produced the plutonium pit. Without a pit, you don’t have a bomb. There were more than 14 tons of plutonium stored at the plant. It only takes 6 to 7 pounds to produce a bomb.

Plutonium would come from Hanford in Washington state and we were the assembly line. We were the factory. We mechanized that plutonium in plutonium pits and each pit contained enough breathable parts of plutonium to kill every person on earth. Those pits where sent to Pantex facility in Texas where they were incased in conventional explosives. When I say factory—we produced 70,000 plutonium pits over a period of 37 years.

When I experienced the fire in 1969 we had no idea anything was wrong. It was May 11—Mother’s Day—and we were out for Sunday brunch. There was an uncontrollable fire going on at Rocky Flats and a cloud of radiation passed overhead. Recent information confirmed that radioactive contamination from the fire reached as far as the Kansas border. We came within seconds of a Chernobyl-like accident. They couldn’t stop it. The roof got so hot it began to rise like a marshmallow. If it weren’t for the firefighters—if the roof had burst—I would not be here. The whole Metro Denver area would have been impacted.

Two firefighters went into the building, Stan Skinger and Bill Dennison, and those guys … made the decision to use water on the fire. It’s interesting, really. There was also a firefighter behind the wheel of the firetruck. He was so nervous he decided to leave. He put the truck into reverse instead of drive, backed up and cut off a power pole. That cut off the fans that heated the fire.

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