Sunday, March 29, 2020

Full Body Burden

View of the Rocky Flats plant looking west in 1995. After 38 years, weapons production ceased in 1989. In 1992, the plant mission changed from weapons production to environmental cleanup and restoration. By 1995, the site had begun to be dismantled.

Body burden was used to describe the amount of radioactive material present in a human body, which acts as an internal and ongoing source of radiation.  The Department of Energy established a ‘permissible full body burden’ for lifetime accumulation of radiation within the body on the assumption that a worker whose exposure did not exceed this level would not suffer ill effects.”

Iversen, Kristen, Full Body Burden, New York, Broadway Books, 2013.  At page 177.

Any student of recent history knows these names and these places.  Each one has been the site of a devastating nuclear disaster.  Today I’m adding another site to the list:  Rocky Flats, Colorado.

The plant at Rocky Flats produced parts for nuclear bombs between 1952 and 1992.  Operated by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Atomic Energy Commision (AEC), the primary product at Rocky Flats was nuclear triggers.  These radioactive triggers initiate nuclear fission in an atomic bomb.  The trigger was called a “pit;” a small disk about the size of a softball.  The pit was made of plutonium.. 

While browsing at Hearth Fire bookstore (just prior to social distancing) I stumbled on Kristen Iversen’s 2013 book Full Body Burden.  It took me about 10 seconds of flipping through pages to make an impulse purchase.

Full Body Burden is both a historical account of Rocky Flats and an autobiography of a girl growing up in the shadow of a nuclear munitions plant.  Iversen successfully weaves these two threads through Full Body Burden, making the all too true story both historical and personal.

Although Rocky Flats was a creature of the federal government, the actual daily operations were contracted to large defense contractors, including Dow Chemical and Rockwell International.  

The thrust of the historical narrative is Rocky Flats’ extreme pollution of the ground, the water, and the air only 15 miles from the entire population of Denver.  For those who are unfamiliar with the geography, Highway 93 between Golden and Boulder passes by the site; the east side of the road near the wind turbines is close to the plant boundary.  It’s literally in the backyard of the entire Denver metro area.

Plutonium is a highly radioactive element that is dangerous even in extremely tiny amounts.  It has a half life of 24,000 years.  Since 1949, scientists have set the maximum body burden for plutonium at 0.1 microgram.  A microgram is 1 millionth of a gram.  For reference, there are 28.35 grams to an ounce.  The amount of plutonium in a full body burden is microscopic.

For one who has spent many years in Colorado, I confess to an embarrassing lack of knowledge about Rocky Flats.  The operations there always worked to keep secrets, and in my case, succeeded wildly.  Iversen’s book retells the stories I missed over the years. 

She tells those stories matter of factly, despite the shocking and disarming (pun intended) nature of the beast.  "Official estimates of how much plutonium was burned or released in the 1957 fire varied widely, from 500 grams (approximately 1.1 pounds) to as much as 92 pounds.  By comparison, Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, used fewer than 14 pounds...The plume exposed countless people in and around Denver to plutomium."  Full Body Burden at pages 30-31.

Theoretically, I can’t do a spoiler here; the details of the Rocky Flats operations are now part of a public record.  That said, though, I do want to mention several focal points in Full Body Burden that came as a surprise…no…as a shock to me.

1.  Major Fires (multiple minor fires omitted):  

Rocky Flats had two major industrial fires at the plant, both of which released substantial amounts of plutonium into the environment.  The first was in 1957, the second on Mother’s Day, May 11,1963.

      The 1957 fire spewed plutonium over a large part of the northwest corner of the Denver metro area.  An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 residents downwind were not notified of the fire until 1970.
Plutonium plume from the 1957 fire at Rocky Flats.
Photo credit:  Wikipedia, public domain, Colorado Department of Public Health.

     The 1963 fire resulted in damages of $70.7 million; including the loss of about $20 million worth of plutonium.  A subsequent study found that soil samples in some places is 1,500 times higher than normal.  This reading is higher than in Nagasaki Japan.  There was no emergency response plan to protect the public in the event of  major disaster at Rocky Flats.

2.  Toxic Waste

The manufacturing process at Rocky Flats created more waste than it created nuclear triggers.  A plutonium lining has settled in the sediment of  Standley Lake (a source of water for the cities of Westminster, Northglenn, and Thornton) and the Great Western Reservoir (a source of water for the city of Broomfield).  

Photo credit:
Some 5,000 barrels of waste oil contaminated by plutonium and uranium were stored at Rocky Flats.  They were stored outdoors, subject to Colorado weather conditions for years.  Many barrels leaked their toxic sludge into the soil, and eventually, the ground waters of Woman Creek and Walnut creek.

3.  MUF (Material Unaccounted For):

Rocky Flats cannot account for 2,640 pounds of plutonium.  Full Body Burden at page 225.  According to authorities, some loss may be due to accounting errors or residue in pipes and other manufacturing infrastructure.  Translation from bureacratic speak:  losses are due to negligence, ignorance and indifference.  An unknown portion of that 2,640 pounds was released into soil, water, and the air over the years.

Given that 0.1 micrograms is a full body burden, the MUF from Rocky Flats represents a significant health hazard.  Despite the $7B clean up of Rocky Flats, 600 acres will be unusable to humans for an undetermined number of centuries.

These three slow motion disasters exposed the metro Denver area to substantial if unknown health risks.   The details mentioned above are from Iversen’s carefully annotated text.  You can listen to an interview with Iversen here.  

Rocky Flats is now a park; Rocky Flats Wild Life Refuge, with approximately 1,300 acres, opened in 2018 after the clean up operation was completed.  It does not include the 600 acres that were the actual site of plutonium production.  Those 600 acres, known as the "legacy" plot, will be a plutonium graveyard for tens of thousands of years.  "Legacy" indeed.

Full Body Burden opened my eyes to a much ignored part of our local history.  For that alone, I recommend Iversen’s book to anyone who has even a passing interest in knowing more about a dark and important part of the Cold War.  Full Body Burden is highly readable; by telling her personal story along with the details of an environmental disaster, one cannot dismiss a single detail in the book.

Bottom line:  if you're looking for an informative and productive use of your time while under the Colorado "stay at home" order, READ THIS BOOK.


1.  You may wonder why I’m doing a book report.  Just like everyone else, I’m on lockdown waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic.  I picked up a few books to read just before the solid waste hit the proverbial fan.

Reading is a great distraction when the stress level is high and one has abundant time on his or her hands.  The live theaters are closed, as are the movie theaters.  Restaurants and bars are closed or reduced to a drive through menu.  Doing a book review is similar to reviewing a play.  Both require careful attention and critical thinking.  Both require storytelling, character development, plots, and a worthwhile message.  The only significant difference is that one experience is over in 2-3 hours, while the other takes days or weeks. Until I can get back in a theater, I'll be doing plenty of reading, and possibly more writing.

2.  In the mid 1950’s, my father worked at Rocky Flats; we lived in Arvada (905 Reno Drive, which is no longer a valid address).  He hated it.  He worked underground, and couldn’t tell us what he did there.  He wore a dosimeter every day.  We left Arvada and Rocky Flats in 1955, and he rarely mentioned it after that.  The US Department of Energy would contact him from time to time, checking on his health.  He died of natural causes in 2018 at the age of 94.  

3.  In an unusual coincidence, it turns out that my current wife Roxie worked in the nuclear industry from 1982-87.  Based in Kansas City, MO, she was part of an operation that  developed non-nuclear parts and mechanisms for nuclear weapons.  The Bannister Federal Complex also left a legacy of thousands of toxins that leaked into soil and groundwater.  Roxie has been contacted by DOE after leaving Bannister for follow up.

4.  We dropped atomic bombs on Japan near the end of World War II.  Those bombs were and still are the only war time use of these weapons.  Whether that was justified is not the topic here.

However, it is my considered opinion that the United States has a very compromised position in our current nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea.  Our insistence that it is just for the US to develop, retain, and deliver nuclear weapons on civilian targets while denying the same option elsewhere rings hollow.  When one adds the environmental disaster that is Rocky Flats, the United States can hardly claim the moral high ground for nuclear weapons.
Ground Zero, Nagasaki.
Photo credit:  Bill Wheeler

5.  In 2010 my late wife Linda and I stood at Ground Zero in Nagasaki Japan.  It is a soul searing experience to stand where tens of thousands of people died in an instant.  Today Nagasaki is the home to the Nagasaki Peace Memorial.  The city has been rebuilt; one could hardly tell it was devastated in 1945.  

According to Japanese tradition, folding 1,000 paper cranes gives you a chance to make one special wish come true. Before making a field trip to the Memorial, Japanese school children will often make 1,000 paper cranes, with a wish for world peace.  The Memorial displays the paper cranes year round.

Paper crane display, Nagasaki.
Photo credit:  Bill Wheeler

6.  Notable local coverage of Rocky Flats (Denver Post coverage omitted due to pay wall):

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sometimes We All Need A Little Help From Our Friends...

Colorado Rising...
This is a difficult time for all of us.  A pandemic is not just a public health threat.  It is also an economic threat to virtually every business in the country.  That threat has become a stark reality for the Denver theater community.

Nearly every live theater company in Denver, Boulder and beyond has taken a hiatus.  Despite the economic losses from closing their doors, company after company has put the safety of their audiences ahead of their now busted budgets.  Shutting off the box office for even a short period can mean the difference between survival and disaster for many theaters.

During this hiatus, those impacted by the shutdown may experience financial or medical emergencies.  For those who qualify, Colorado unemployment benefits may help bridge the gap.  If you contract Covid-19, the Denver Actor’s Fund may be able to help with your medical expenses. For emergency housing and other assistance, check these resources.

Some of us will get sick; many more will lose income.  Don’t hesitate to reach out for help for your medical and/or financial needs.  We are all in this together.

Break a leg.  The show WILL go on.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020


Released:  December 25, 2019.

Running Time:  1 hour, 59 minutes.

Rated:  R for violence, disturbing images, and language

And now for something completely different.

For the first time, Theater Colorado is reviewing a film, namely 1917, the World War I story nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and the winner of 3 Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects);

I’m adding 1917 to the mix here because my theater reviews will be sporadic.  Movies are much more accessible to a large audience, and I’d like to reach more readers with relevant content on Theater Colorado.


I grew up in an era of World War II movies, featuring mostly patriotic themes and glamorizing war.  John Wayne was in most of the ones I remember; Back to Bataan, Flying Leathernecks, and the like.  The Americans were the brave heroes; the Germans and Japanese were the bad guys.  Violence was more implicit than explicit. 

World War I films have been fairly rare in my experience, with the possible exception of
Warhorse (2011).  1917 is not just one of those rare films about the “war to end all wars”, but, in my view, the most realistic and important war film since Saving Private Ryan.  

The first 30 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan may still be the most disturbing combat footage ever. It is a graphic demonstration of the chaos of war and random, instantaneous death in battle.  Until seeing Saving Private Ryan, I had harbored a glorified vision of combat.  Spielberg showed us an ugly reality that I will never forget.  1917 is not just 30 minutes, but nearly two hours of intense, disturbing, edge of your seat combat.  It will haunt me just as Saving Private Ryan has.

As the film opens, we get a long shot of a peaceful meadow.  The camera zooms back from the meadow, and we meet two Lance Corporals, known best by their last names, Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay).  They are ordered to report to their commander for orders, where they are tasked with a suicide mission.  They are to cross enemy lines through “no man’s land” to warn other British units to call off an attack planned for the next day.  British intelligence has learned that the German army laid a trap for the1,600 attacking soldiers.  The attack will be a massacre.  No one really thinks Blake and Schofield will survive the first 10 yards, much less complete the mission, but they somewhat reluctantly follow their orders.  Blake, we learn, has been picked for the mission because his brother will be among the 1,600 victims of the German trap.

(R) George Mackay (Schofield) and (L) Dean-Charles Chapman
The trek through the combat zone is indeed a nightmare; the courage of Blake and Schofield is utterly overwhelming.  Faced with certain death at literally every step, the Lance Corporals resist, persist, and dare to move on against the longest of odds.  As to whether they are successful, you’ll have to see for yourself.

Director Sam Mendes has done Spielberg one better.  He shot 1917 in one continuous take…or at least mostly in one take, with some editing magic.  The effect is to give the film a “first person” perspective.  You follow the the story as if you’re there in real time, seeing what the actors see, hearing what the actors hear, and walking miles in their shoes.  Needless to say, it’s damn scary to be walking in those shoes.  

Some movies are entertaining.  Others teach us life lessons.  1917 is the latter.  We too often take for granted the suffering and sacrifice of the young men and women who volunteer to put their lives on the line.  1917 won’t let you take that sacrifice for granted.  Victory is not won by the generals in the large battles.  It’s won by the foot soldiers, the sailors, and the airmen who achieve small victories at great personal cost in their own personal war.  Those small victories won by individual men and women are what wins the larger battle.

Without being preachy, 1917 will give you pause about the purpose and value of war.  The film doesn't take sides, but it's difficult to justify the carnage even on the small scale of a couple of days in the lives of two Lance Corporals.  Regardless of the outcome of any war, the losses far outweigh the political gains that may be won.  It is axiomatic that some wars are inevitable and necessary, but that does not diminish the cost in lives lost and lives forever changed.
American Cemetery, May, 2015.
Photo Credit:  Bill Wheeler

I stood in the American Cemetery in Normandy, and I stood at ground zero in both Nagasaki and New York City.  These are places where the cost of war is undeniable.  1917 took me back to those moments when I was forced to acknowledge the state sanctioned mass murder we call war.  I don’t know if 1917 should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2019.  I didn’t see very many of the other nominees.  But I do know it’s the best film I've seen in a very long time.  

Ground Zero, Nagasaki.  February, 2010.
Photo credit:  Bill Wheeler


Some movies look great on a large television.  Other movies, however, look best when seen on a huge screen in a darkened theater permeated with the scent of popcorn.  1917 is one of those movies.

There are many ways to recognize the sacrifice and service our veterans.  Don't hesitate to do so if you can.

Working for peace is a noble if lost cause.  The effort is worthwhile even if the results are meager.

Photo Credit:, Bill Wheeler

Director:  Sam Mendes 

Written by:  Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

PARTIAL LIST OF CAST (see full list here):

Lance Corporal Blake:  Dean-Charles Chapman

Lance Corporal Schofield:  George MacKay

Sergeant Sanders:  Daniel May

General Erinmore:  Colin Firth

Sunday, February 9, 2020

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Company:  Stagedoor Theatre Adult Company

Venue:  Stagedoor Theatre, 25797 Conifer Road, Conifer, CO 80433

Book and Lyrics by:  Robert L. Freedman

Music and Lyrics by:  Steven Lutvak

Based on a novel by:  Roy Horniman

Running time:  2 hours, 40 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Saturday, February 8, 2020, 2:00 PM performance.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t judge a play by its title.  Any title using the words “Gentleman,” “Love” and “Murder” is bound to conjure up images of romance, tragedy, drama, and mayhem.  Stage Door Theatre’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (hereafter “Love and Murder”) is not a romance, nor a tragedy or a drama.  Surprisingly, it’s a highly entertaining musical comedy triumph.

“Love and Murder” opens with a warning for the faint hearted:  “LEAVE NOW.”  Ignore it.  It’s bad advice.  This is a high energy comedy that won four Tony awards (including Best Musical) in the 2014 Broadway season.

Since I don’t do spoilers, I’ll limit my comments on the plot to saying that palace intrigue can be a dangerous game, but the results can sometimes bring about righteous justice.  The plot doesn’t dwell on the morality of “gentlemen,” “love,” or “murder,” except to squeeze every possible laugh out of each.

Stage Door Theatre is a small company in small venue.  “Love and Murder” is a huge production for any company.  That Stage Door attempted “Love and Murder” isn’t a big surprise though; the company has been overachieving for some time.  That they nailed this production demonstrates that Stage Door is punching far above its weight.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  Chris Burroughs brings his “A” game in every scene, whether he’s dabbling in love or crime.  He’s an accomplished and talented singer who seems to glide through the show effortlessly. Burroughs plays off his female leads with a wink and a smile, charming everyone in the room.

Chris Burroughs (Monty) and Jennasea Pearce (Sibella).
Those female leads, by the way, are a joy to watch…and to hear.  Both Maria Giovanetti and Jennasea Pearce are songbirds of the first order.  It’s easy to imagine both in a talent pipeline straight to Broadway.

Clyde Sacks has the dubious honor of playing (by my count) ten characters in “Love and Murder.”  Two of those characters are women.  I doubt many actors would take on such a challenge.  Sacks makes it look like the most natural thing to do.  He skillfully draws bold lines around each of the nine characters, making them distinctly different.  He’s got a gift for comedic timing.  His scene with Burroughs for “Better with a Man” is hilarious.  In fact, if one adds up the laughs in “Love and Murder,” the lion’s share belongs to Sacks.  

The technical gears that drive the performance were well done.  Dean Arniotes’ set is versatile and functional.  Susie Couch’s costumes are gorgeous.  The small orchestra is invisible while putting out a professional sound track for the cast.  Lights and sound were effective without being intrusive. Every detail, right down to Chris Burrough’s marvelous wigs, was spot on.

If one is to pick any nits here, a stage hand made a brief unschedule appearance onstage, and a camera prop got misplaced.  That’s it.  From start to finish, “Love and Murder” is a polished, professional and highly entertaining production.  

Stage Door marshaled a small army of actors, musicians, technicians, and assorted volunteers to make this show happen.  The list below is long, but still partial.  It’s clear that each and every person involved in “Love and Murder” gave 100% to guarantee the success of the show.  This is a personal hat tip to those involved, whether listed below or not.  Well done.


This show gets a PG rating for some vulgar gestures.  

The performance scheduled for Friday, February 7 was cancelled due to the 15-20 inches of snow that fell during that day.  Due to the cancellation, tickets for the remaining performances may be scarce.

This show closes on February 16, 2020. 

Photo Credit: Stage Door Theatre, Rachel McCombs-Graham.


Director/Choreographer:  Gerry Hansen

Music Director:   Caitlin Conklin

Production Manager:  Susie Couch

Assistant Choreographer:  Meg Chilton

Dance Captain:  Jennasea Pearce

Technical Director/Set Designer:  Dean Arniotes

Set Construction:  Dean Ariotes, Biz Schaugaard 

Painter:  Cat Harris

Lighting Design:  Steve Tangedal

Sound Design:  Dean Arniotes

Orchestra:  Caitlin Conklin, keyboards, Alec Michael Powell, woodwinds, Danny Barsetti-Nerland, percussion, Lisa Kriss, violin

Costume Design:  Susie Couch

Costume Manager:  Maren Wood

D’Ysquith Costumes:  Colleen Hughes

D’Ysquith dressers:  Susie Couch, Denise Taylor

Costume Crew:  Karen Maurer, Colleen Kirkpatrick Hughes, Jennasea Pearce, Lina Ramirez

Wigs:  Chris Burroughs

Props:  Tracie Paschall, Ella Spoor, Gavin Maurer, Gerry Hansen, Clyde Sacks, Robin Booth 

Light Board Operator:  Jon Weeks

Stage Manager:   Ella Spoor

Stage Hands:  Julia Harrison, Leilani Battersby


Monty Navarro:  Chris Burroughs

Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr., Lord Adlabert D’Ysquith, Reverend Lord Ezekiel D’Ysquith, Lord Adlabert D’Ysquith, Sr., Henry D’Ysquith, Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, Lady Salome D’Ysquith, Pumphrey, Chanucey D’Ysquith:  Clyde Sacks.

Sibella Hallward/Ensemble:  Jennesea Pearce

Phoebe D’Ysquiith/Ensemble:  Maria Giovanetti

Miss Shingle/Ensemble:  Susie Couch

Miss Barley/Ensemble:  Ashley Devine

Lady Eugenia D’ysquith/Ensemble:  Marcelina Ramirez

Tour Guide/Ensemble:  Scout Halpern

Tom Copley/Ensemble:  Jeremy Carr

Inspector/Ensemble:  Gavin Maurer

Magistrate/Ensemble:  Keith Rabin-Hoover