I was able to look back on my life, particularly my adolescent years, and put many things in perspective. My family has been remarkably supportive of the book, and we grew closer as we talked about things in the past that we had never really talked about before.
The book has also had a big impact on the lives of people who live near Rocky Flats or other nuclear facilities in the United States and beyond – people whose stories and experiences have rarely been told. I received an e-mail from a reader who grew up in my hometown of Arvada, Colorado, and now lives in Japan, where she experienced the meltdown at Fukushima. “We are all hibakusha – victims of radiation,” she wrote.
And indeed, as I heard from people around the country, I began to see that many of us have been affected bay the nuclear industry. Judging from comments from people who live or grew up near nuclear weapons facilities or nuclear power plants, to industry workers and even officials in the Department of Energy (DOE), Full Body Burden has really hit a nerve – and many people expressed gratitude that the long-secret story of Rocky Flats, and other facilities like it, was now being told.
A local Colorado resident wrote: “Like you, I was born and raised in Arvada. Your book was like reliving my childhood. . . . I was diagnosed with cancer. I have always believed my cancer was from living downwind from Rocky Flats. Many of the kids from my high school class had cancer.”
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There were (and are) many nuclear sites similar to Rocky Flats around the country, including the Hanford site in Washington and the Savannah River Site near Atlanta. The wife of a former worker at the Savannah River Site wrote, “My husband died from lung cancer at the age of thirty, barely two months from the date of his diagnosis. Someone needs to write a book like this for the Savannah River Site. We get very little exposure or help in this area.”
Painful stories like this from nuclear sites all around the country are often hidden or repressed, yet they represent the untold legacy of U.S. policy at nuclear weapons sites as well as many nuclear power plants. What are the real health and environmental costs of nuclear facilities? We need to bring these stories out in the open, and look closely at how U.S. nuclear facilities impact the lives of people who live and work nearby, as well as those who work in the nuclear industry.
There are some people, of course, who believe that the story of Rocky Flats should remain hidden or be quickly forgotten, and that the environmental impact, both short and long term, is inconsequential. Construction of roads and new houses around Rocky Flats continues at a rapid pace, despite the concerns of local citizens. But even those in the government don’t necessarily agree with the emphasis on business interests over human health and the environment.
I received a fascinating e-mail from a man with three engineering degrees who had served as a captain in the U.S. Army, as the chief of Reactor Systems in the United States for the DOE, and as director of Risk Management for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He worked at Rocky Flats and also with the accidents at Three Mile Island and the Crystal River Nuclear Plant in the United States, as well as Chernobyl and Fukushima. He writes, “I noted the sentence ‘Production takes precedence over safety.’ That sentence says it all.”
These kinds of stories – stories that have been kept secret or hidden or overlooked for years – are essential for us, as a culture, to hear and understand as we consider how to deal with the environmental and health legacies of our nuclear industry, and how to move forward into the future.