Nuclear Fallout




first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 2, 1995

Down at the end of the industrial court, where the concrete turns into a circle, a beige-colored, double-wide mobile home is parked between the Stone Container Corp. and Futura Coatings Co. The address, at 9200 Latty Avenue in Hazelwood, is landscaped sparsely with yews that have been manicured beyond salvation. On Saturday night, the trailer’s air conditioner hums even though nobody is there. Unpainted wooden steps lead to the door, as does a ramp for the disabled. A small gravel parking lot also includes handicapped-designated spaces.

For the most part, the site seems like any suburban-industrial park except for the small nuclear warning signs on the nearby cyclone fence. Behind the barrier is an imposing mound that juts over the surrounding one-story warehouses. The manmade hill is covered by grayish-black rocks and topped with a green net or tarp.

Although it is not identified as such, this radioactive waste site, which is now watched over by the Department of Energy (DOE), is a monument to the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima. Other contaminated locations that indirectly commemorate the origins of the atomic age are scattered across the St. Louis area, from the Mississippi River to Lambert Field and out to Weldon Spring in St. Charles County. They are dangerous reminders — twentieth-century vestiges of nuclear war.

Much of the radioactive waste that remains here is an unwanted byproduct of uranium purification conducted at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on North Broadway. In 1942, the St. Louis chemical manufacturer began refining uranium for the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime program to develop the atom bomb. The uranium used in the first atomic test explosion and two subsequent military strikes against Japan was processed in St. Louis.

The first atom bomb used in actual warfare exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945. More than 100,000 people died, either instantly or of radiation sickness. The 2-kiloton bomb was nicknamed “Little Boy.” The atomic annihilation would be repeated three days later on Nagasaki. Japan quickly surrendered.

“This much is known, Japanese civilians who survived the attack on Hiroshima say they didn’t hear any noise at the moment the bomb detonated. Instead, they describe a blinding light, disintegration, darkness, and fire.

“In short, hell on earth.”

Whether the atom bomb attacks saved more lives by bringing a rapid end to the war is still a matter of great debate. President Harry S Truman, a Missourian, claimed that using the bomb prevented what would have been bloody land invasion that could have cost the U.S. a million more casualties. This much is known, Japanese civilians who survived the attack on Hiroshima say they didn’t hear any noise at the moment the bomb detonated. Instead, they describe a blinding light, disintegration, darkness, and fire.

In short, hell on earth.

Photographs of the aftermath show miles of charred rubble. Many survivors bore terrible burns. The estimated heat generated by the bomb blast was four times as hot as the interior of the sun. The Hiroshima explosion could be seen from a distance of 250 miles.

The Manhattan Project cost the U.S. taxpayer about $2 billion. The subsequent nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union skyrocketed the into the trillions. In the rush to produce nuclear armaments, expedient means took precedence over safe disposal of radioactive waste. Generations of future Americans will be strapped with the expensive task of mopping up. The Department of Energy (DOE) now estimates the tab at more than $100 billion. By the end of the Cold War, there were 14 active nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S., occupying more than 3,350 square miles. The DOE has counted 8,700 radioactive and chemical dump sites nationwide that need remediation.

As a part of the Manhattan Project, Mallinckrodt developed a crude method of uranium purification using ether as a coolant. African pitchblende, which contained high concentrations of uranium, made up much of the crude ore the company then processed. The combination of extremely radioactive materials, wartime haste and lack of experience led to over-exposures among uranium workers here. Due to wartime secrecy, the workers weren’t given a clear indication of the dangers.

After the war, production at Mallinckrodt continued. Safety measures increased, but so did the waste. The legacy in St. Louis now amounts to 2.3 million cubic yards of radioactive material. Much of that unwanted stockpile is still untreated.

At the Mallinckrodt plant on North Broadway, for instance, the radioactive levels in some buildings still exceed what is now considered safe by the DOE. Earlier efforts to clean up the site only served to spread the waste. In the decade following the war, the federal government secretly moved hundreds of tons of radioactive waste and debris from the chemical factory to a 21.7-acre site north of Lambert Field. In the process, truck routes, ground water and surface water all became contaminated. Later, efforts to reuse some of the radioactive material resulted in the dump site on Latty Avenue. From there, some waste was illegally hauled to the West Lake landfill in Bridgeton. In addition, at least 5,000 truckloads of radioactive waste were transported to a quarry near Weldon Spring. By 1957, the AEC had opened a new uranium processing plant there.

Mallinckrodt operated the facility for the next ten years. It, too, became radioactively contaminated. Unlike the sites in St. Louis County, however, a DOE cleanup of the quarry and nearby plant is now underway.
A 1981 study of more than 2,000 Mallinckrodt uranium division workers showed an increase in three different cancers, including a 24 percent above-normal rise in the rate of leukemia . In addition, a controversial a series of cancer cases has plagued one block of Nyflot Avenue, a residential street in North County, a dump route where radioactive waste was spilled. In 1993, the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) ruled the cancers on Nyflot were probably not related to radioactive exposure. But some environmentalist doubt MDOH’s conclusion.

The consequences of living with the emotional fallout from the bomb raises other concerns. Denial, rationalization and other psychological defense mechanisms have been a means by which responsible politicians, military leaders and the public at large have been able to cope with the sheer magnitude of the carnage that ended World War II, as well as the ensuing threat that it could happen here.

“As a cultural historian, … it seems to me that the prospect of a nuclear war, — evidence of the destruction of two cities — had a profound effect psychologically, often in ways that (we) didn’t recognize,” says historian Paul Boyer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Boyer, the author of Bomb’s Early Light, a cultural history of the nascent atomic age, believes the bomb undermined an essential sense of continuity in American society. “Much of American culture … since the period from 1945 really has to be understood in terms of this underlying anxiety and sense of uncertainty,” says Boyer.

Secrecy and deception added to the unease. After the war, the federal government embarked on a campaign to misrepresent the potential hazards of radioactive fallout, Boyer says. “The Eisenhower cabinet … said we’ll just confuse the public, … (and) say there’s no danger — people don’t understand these scientific complexities, anyway. … They didn’t know what they were doing. There were terrible poisons being pumped into the air,” says Boyer.

Today, there is ample evidence that public distrust of the government was warranted. In the post-war years, approximately, 250,000 combat troops were placed in close proximity to above-ground nuclear test blasts in Nevada and Utah to simulate possible wartime conditions. As a result, soldiers were exposed to as much as 12 billion curies of radiation, or 148 times more than was released from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union. Untold numbers of civilians, who lived downwind from atmospheric testing, were also exposed. Recently, Congress belatedly passed legislation granting $50,000 to civilians who can prove they got cancer after being subjected to radioactive fallout from the atmospheric nuclear test that occurred between 1951 to 1963. The Committee of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimates fallout from weapons testing has caused 430,000 additional cancer deaths in the last 50 years.

Even as it denied the seriousness of nuclear fallout, the government was conducting secret experiments on radiation exposure. A 1986 congressional investigation headed by U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts found that, as a part of the Manhattan Project, American scientists injected unsuspecting patients with plutonium. Afterward, the surviving subjects weren’t informed of the experiment for more than 20 years, because the word “plutonium” was classified information during World War II. The list of these kinds of incidents is long.

By early 1945, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-American physicist, had begun circulating a petition among colleagues that implored the government not to use the atom bomb on Japan and keep it a secret. Well over 100 scientist signed the pact. By the time the appeal reached the White House, however, Truman had departed for the Pottsdam Conference in Europe, but not before Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project director, had convincingly argued in favor of using the bomb.

The scientists who foresaw the dangers of atomic weapons were far from alone. The military leaders who raised questions or opposed dropping the bomb on Hiroshima included Gen. George C. Marshall, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and Adm. William H. Leahy. Yet the majority of the scientific and military community involved in the Manhattan Project remained true believers.

Physicist Arthur Holly Compton, the post-war chancellor of Washington University, became one of the most staunch defenders of Cold War diplomacy. In an open letter to U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, Compton wrote: “There are those … who believe that by arming our nation with the most effective weapons we are exciting the world toward war. My own appraisal of history is the reverse.” Although acknowledging the dangers of nuclear fallout, Compton stood fast in his support of nuclear weapons testing. “In my judgement,” wrote Compton, “the hazard has in certain quarters been grossly exaggerated.”

Compton had won the 1927 Nobel Prize for his work on X-Rays, which he did while the head of the physics department at Washington University. Later, at the University of Chicago, he became involved in overseeing work being done there on the Manhattan Project. As a part of that role, Compton came to St. Louis in April 1942 and asked chemical tycoon Edward J. Mallinckrodt, to help purify large quantities of uranium needed for the project. Three months later, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was cranking out a ton of purified uranium daily. By December 1942, a team of scientists at the University of Chicago, led by Enrico Fermi, had generated and controlled the first nuclear chain reaction.

During his post-war tenure as chancellor at Washington University, Compton attracted nuclear scientists such as Arthur C. Wahl and Joseph W. Kennedy, two of the discoverers of plutonium. Kennedy died at age 40 of cancer, only two years after he and his partners had sold the rights to the plutonium separation process to the AEC for $400,000.
After witnessing the first atomic test explosion at Los Alamos, N.M. on July 16, 1945, another leading physicist — J. Robert Oppenheimer — recited an ancient Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu holy book. “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds,” said Oppenheimer. Less reverently, his test director Kenneth Bainbridge responded to the atomic explosion by saying, “We are all sons of bitches now.”

Following the detonation over Hiroshima less than a month later, Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb, gazed at the inferno below and exclaimed: “My, God, look at that son of a bitch go!” , Later, Lewis revised his reaction in his journal by writing, “My God, what have we done?”

That question obviously entered the mind of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Two days after the Hiroshima bombing, Stimson had a heart attack. He resigned soon after the Japanese surrender. In a February 1947 Harper’s magazine article, Stimson defended the decision to drop the bomb, but nonetheless warned of its grave consequences.

“The face of war is the face of death,” wrote Stimson. “War in the twentieth century has grown steadily more barbarous, more destructive, more debased in all its aspects. Now, with the release of atomic energy, man’s ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war. They also made it wholly clear that we must never have another war.”


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