Edited by Kristen Iversen, with E. Warren Perry and Shannon Perry
Expected publishing date Fall of 2020
Reviewed by Ginny Short
Warning: don’t pick up this book unless you are prepared to be shocked.
But frankly, if you happen to live in the Atomic Age – which, unless you have been sleeping you know that time is now – you should read this book. I remember learning to duck and cover. I remember being terrified that we would go up in nuclear smoke. I was born just upwind of Rocky Flats. I remember. I grew up about 100 miles from the Trinity Site in New Mexico. I remember. I have spent most of my adult life within 100 miles of a nuclear plant. I remember. This book jogs my own recollection, and reminds me that the nuclear reactor that I have lived close to for nearly 40 years, and the atomic skies I grew up under are still a threat, still something to fear. They are not something to hide, lock up and throw away the key. We have a radioactive history.
This book is intense. Some of the essays are dense with science (I’m still struggling with the concepts of picocuries and curies), and some of them appeal to the broader public. But each and every essay sketches a story around the theme of radioactive contamination and secrecy and the promise of the American Dream. Imagine you are a couple with a new family. Imagine you have saved and saved and finally have enough for a down payment on a house. Imagine you buy it. I have neighbors who bought houses downwind of a series of sand dunes. To them the dunes are demonic: they coat their streets and yards and golf courses with fine, white sand. There is an odd, unwritten contract in the buying of a home: unless it is expressly encoded by law, you won’t find in the fine print the problems the house may have. Like dust. Like radioactive dust. My neighbors can see the dust and they howl like coyotes. This is annoying dust. Imagine if you can’t see the dust. Imagine then what it can do to you, to your family, your friends. But no one has any obligation to warn you about the dust. Would you howl if you knew your new home was contaminated with radioactivity that will outlast you for 959 generations to come?
This is the story, the complication, the audacity of Rocky Flats, one of many cold-war sites producing parts for the nuclear weapons that initiated the Atomic Age. This is a story that all those who live in our Atomic Neighborhood should read. And make no mistake, we are all in the Neighborhood as Linda Pentz Gunter’s essay The Nuclear Power-Nuclear Weapons Connection really makes clear. We are in the neighborhood, and you may find as you ponder these essays surprising connections in your own life. I was born 9 miles away from Rocky Flats (and upwind), just 4 years after it opened. I wonder if my parents knew about it? They never mentioned it. My Dad worked at White Sands Missile Range – another site of cold war military expertise - for most of his adult life. He was never allowed to speak about his work.
I would caution you: some of the essays are difficult to read. Some because they are dense with scientific jargon. Keep going: you can get through these. (Just remember that a picocurie is one measurement of the rate of decay of uranium: in one minute it will exhibit 2 decays or disintegrations. Each “decay” releases radioactive energy called alpha, beta or gamma rays. Each time it releases energy it bombards surrounding tissue and can damage it. If you inhale a single particle containing one picocurie of energy, and it lodges in your lungs it will bombard the surrounding cells twice every minute for the remainder of your life. If you live 40 more years you will receive radiation exposure 31,540,000,000 times over the course of your life in those cells. So, a soil sample with 50 picocuries contained therein will decay at 100 times per day. So, if a particle of radioactive material containing 50 picocuries of energy lodges in – say your lung, it will continually bombard your lung tissue 100 times a day for the remainder of your life. Remember that that particle will outlast you.) Needless to say, that is a lot of radiation focused in a very small area. This is how I digested the information contained in these essays
Read through these. And be encouraged, many of the other essays will summarize what the geeky scientists like to read and write. Read through. But be advised, they are all difficult to read because of the allegations made, and the jumble of facts, and suppositions. They are difficult to read because of the allegations of cover ups, the disquieting stories of heroism, patriotism, loss and sacrifice. They are also encouraging: what better use of art than to illustrate this important part of our history?
Read on. The final essay is a wonderful tome on the responsibility we have towards ourselves and future generations. We don’t want to hide the fact of our nuclear history. This book is not about blame but about responsibility. This has been part of the problem. The author of the final essay (Kathleen Sullivan) makes a compelling case for us to own our nuclear history, claim it, explore it and save it for future generations. We can’t do that if we don’t know it exists. We already have a legacy of contaminated land and illness among our people. If we do not own that history, if we do not think about it, it will continue to silently contaminate our legacy for 24,000 years...if we survive that long.