The Sacred and the Profane

After witnessing the first atomic test explosion at Los Alamos, N.M. on July 16, 1945,  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.”

The Weldon Spring Saga

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1993

At Weldon Spring, in rural St. Charles County, Mo.,  a quarry and nearby uranium plant were contaminated with chemical and nuclear materials.  As a result, radioactive water is now seeping through limestone into the groundwater. If the quarry water is not removed, there is a chance the seepage will soon reach nearby well fields that supply most St. Charles County s with water.

The contaminants include TNT and DNT, World War II-vintage esxplosives dumped at the site by the Atlas Powder Co. After the war, tons of mixed radioavtive wastes were thrown in the quarry by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The waste continued to be hauled to the quarry until 1968.

So in 1986, the DOE began an ambitious 12-year cleanup at the two sites. The estimated cost to the EPA Superfund has doubled since 1989, and now stands at between $650 and $850 million. About $4 million of that money has gone to build the water treatment plant at the quarry.

The discharge is the first of 20 million gallons to be released into the river over the next five years. After drainage, solid radioactive wastes will still have to be removed. The second batch of quarry water is supposed to be treated in late January [1994].

Compton, Mallinckrodt and the Wash U Connection

Arthur Holly 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 Manhattan Project 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.

Deaths in Venice

In 1989, the Consolidated Aluminum Corp. (Conalco) and Dow Chemical Co. began to quietly clean up a 40-acre site adjacent to a foundry in Madison, Ill., that the two companies formerly owned. The plant and dump site are both located on the boundary between the Metro East cities of Madison and Venice.

The clean-up entailed dividing the area into a massive grid made up of hundreds of squares and then using a complicated formula to measure the contamination levels in each of them. To carry out the job, contractors constructed a laboratory, rail spur and loading station.

By the time the project ended in December 1992 more than 105,000 tons of thorium-contaminated slag had been loaded into 978 rail cars and shipped to a low-level radioactive waste facility in Utah, according to a final report prepared for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS), the state agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up.

The 1992 report states: “Because of the proximity of the contaminated area to a residential neighborhood, and the inconvenience that the construction activity imposed upon the neighborhood, the construction was done in a manner such that all contaminated material above natural background was removed and the area was backfilled immediately. ” …

The history of radioactive contamination at the foundry dates back to 1957, when Dow began processing uranium for fuel rods under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckdrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The plant was one of hundreds of low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the federal government’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s. The subsequent government-mandated clean-up, which was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, focused mainly on uranium contamination inside facility and did not include additional monitoring or remediation at the adjacent 40-acre site.

The thorium waste was the byproduct of another facet of the foundry’s operations — production of lightweight alloys used for military and aerospace applications. Between 1960 and 1973 Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant on the adjacent property. After Conalco took over the operation, the dumping continued for years, including monthly shipments of thorium waste produced at Dow facilities in Bay City and Midland, Mich.

Industrial and Residential Exposures

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.

Human Guinea Pigs

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.

Spreading the Contamination Around

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1995

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.

Covering Up Human Radiation Experimentation

from  Riverfront Times reporting by C.D. Stelzer

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.

Thorium in Coldwater Creek

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1997

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

Arthur Holly Compton Embraces the Bomb


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 judgment,” wrote Compton, “the hazard has in certain quarters been grossly exaggerated.”