The Uranium Cookbook

The EPA’s recent tests of West Lake nuke waste are not unprecendted. Sixty-five years ago the AEC published a recipe by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works  on “roasting”  pitchblende. 

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“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is President Harry S Truman’s  most noted quip. But Truman is remembered more for actions than words.

He ordered the atomic bomb attacks on Japan that ended World War II. Much of the uranium used in those bombs came from African pitchblende ore and was processed by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis. The classified work continued during the Cold War nuclear arms race that followed. As a result, radioactive waste was haphazardly strewn at sites across the region for 20 years.

Embers of that fateful era are still burning today in North St. Louis County, where leftovers from the Manhattan Project remain a topic of heated discussions.

“Heat” is exactly what the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio applied in its laboratory experiments earlier this year. The purpose of research was to determine whether uranium waste from the makings of the first atomic bombs — dumped decades ago at the West Lake Landfill — threatens to release harmful radon gas if exposed to increased temperatures.

Spurred by public concern, the EPA commissioned the study to see what would occur if the underground fire raging at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill met the radioactively-contaminated materials (RIM) buried at the West Lake Superfund site. The question has been smoldering since December 2010, when landfill owner Republic Services reported the hellish conditions.

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The good news, according to the EPA, is that the tests confirmed that baking RIM does not increase radon gas emissions and in some instances decreases them. Community activists have hotly contested those findings, questioning whether the simulated laboratory conditions are comparable to the real fire in the hole.

The latest assurances appear to be another attempt to stem the firestorm of public distrust that surrounds the topic.  Meanwhile, the subterranean smoldering event, as the EPA prefers to call it, continues to burn closer to the RIM.

As the sparks from this drama inevitably create more smoke than light, it should be kept in mind that the flouted tests are not the first to measure the effects of heat on pitchblende. That distinction goes to the Atomic Energy Commission, which published a Mallinckrodt report on the subject in December 1950.

The title of the 65-year-old tract, “The Roasting of Pitchblende Ore,” seems more applicable to a macabre cookbook than a scientific treatise. It also conjures up a combination of Arthurian alchemy and biblical fire and brimstone.

Brimstone is the ancient word for sulfur.

Up to ten percent of the content of the pitchblende ore was comprised of sulfur, according to the Mallinckrodt study. In the 20th Century, the Mallinckrodt scientists were not concerned about the health impact of the sulfur or radioactive materials for that matter. Instead, they theorized that removing the sulfur by cooking the pitchblende would save the company money and increase profits.

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