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An interview with 'Full Body Burden' author Kristen Iversen

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Kristen Iversen

How well, if at all, do you feel the general public understands the risks from radioactive contamination? You can't smell it, you can't see it, you can't taste it? Is it a failure of communicators, is it a difficult topic, is it too scary?
I think it's terrifying for people to contemplate that they might be affected by something they can't see or taste or smell. Certainly that was the rationale in my neighborhood.

What is the lethal dose of plutonium?
There is no safe level. There's a standard set for workers, but even that is very high and very controversial. You have people who have lower exposures who get sick and people who are exposed to higher levels who might not get sick for a long time. But I think the greater concern is that independent researchers keep finding breathable particles of plutonium in the soil. They found it in the crawl space of a home. That is the greater concern. Certainly for the so-called wildlife refuge itself. The biggest reason is there are breathable particles of plutonium out there in the woods. [Ed note: Rocky Flats was converted into a National Wildlife Refuge after a partial cleanup.]

I see travel magazines refer to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge as the “nation's most ironic park”? Are those reviewers missing the point?
Well, I think there's a gallows humor in there, don't you think? For one thing the joke in my family and my neighborhood when it began to be somewhat familiar what was happening at Rocky Flats was, “That's why we all have such glowing personalities.” And then when I worked at Rocky Flats, the general attitude was, “Well, we all live around here. If we've got something, we've been exposed to it already.” … I think that irony contains a little bit of despair: What am I going to do about it?

You've also become critical of security at nuclear facilities around the country. How has your research taken you in that direction?
I don't think these facilities are as secure as the Department of Energy would like us to believe, by any means. I also don't think people know and understand what is happening at these facilities and why they should be concerned.

Do you hold out any hope that we have the technological expertise to isolate this waste in the way it needs to be, essentially removed from the biosphere for eons?
It's very troubling. I think we haven't yet found a safe site. In fact, licenses for nuclear power plants have been held up in these past few weeks given the fact we don't have a safe, long-term facility. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, which is almost impossible to imagine in human terms. There are other materials that are much more dangerous for longer periods of time. It's almost unfathomable. We obviously need to find some place to store what we've produced so far. I honestly don't know what the solution is to that. It's frustrating and it’s troubling and it's a political decision, obviously. No one wants that stuff in their backyard. We need to find a place that is geologically stable forever, and politically stable forever. I'm not sure what the solution is.
When Roy Romer was governor of Colorado and he was dealing with issues at Rocky Flats and they had reached their limit in terms of how much plutonium could be stored out there. Rohmer said if we can't store it, stop producing it. I think that is a really important point.

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