The First Secret City presents: Tom Zoellner — author of Uranium: War Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World — on the social responsibility of proper disposal of nuclear waste.
The presence here of plutonium — the most toxic of radio isotopes — is attributed to two sources. Finding either one is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The Department of Energy doesn’t know where the plutonium is.
In March 2001, the DOE reported that the nuclear facility in Weldon Spring handled recycled uranium for years. DOE investigators reported that 70,000 metric tons of recycled uranium passed through the plant between 1957 and 1966, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical ran the operation for the Atomic Energy Commission. The investigation calculated that 2.4 grams of plutonium would have present in this amount.
Recycled uranium is hotter because it has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor. At the time, it was estimated that exposure to one-millionth of an ounce of plutonium could cause cancer.
But the recycled uranium may not be the only source of potential plutonium contamination in the St. Louis region.
That’s because the Belgian Congo pitchblende that Mallinckrodt processed to make the first atomic bombs contains small amounts of plutonium, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
Waste byproducts from the pitchblende processing is known to have contaminated a several sites in the St. Louis area, including Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill.
When cyclists spin their wheels this weekend to commemorate the illegal dumping of radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, they’ll be riding over a very hot roadbed.
The Latty Avenue roadbed in Hazelwood, Mo. is constructed of highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste, according to an overlooked Department of Energy document uncovered this week by the Environmental Archives.
Just hot is it under Latty?
In 1987, Aerospace Corp., a DOE contractor, reported the levels of radiation in one hot spot under Latty Avenue were literally off the charts.
“Activities in the “hot spot” sample were so high that quantitative determinations using initial analytical techniques were not possible, and further analyses (sic) will be required,” according to the then-DOE contractor.
The online database released the revelation along with a cache of other records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The release of the document coincidentally corresponds with a planned ride by bicyclists this Saturday to draw attention to St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.
Tons of radioactively-contaminated materials at the Latty Avenue site were transported and illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in 1973 over a three-month period.
More than four decades later, the waste is still there, which has led in recent years to a fight by community members to get the EPA to relinguish control of the site to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps has cleaned up the former storage area on Latty Avenue and other sites in the St. Louis area as a part of the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).
But the haul route contamination, for the most part, has not been addressed because it allegedly falls below the current clean-up standards set by the Corps. Radioactive contamination that lies under the pavement is now deemed as safe.
In 1987, it was a different story, however, according to the DOE report made public by the Environmental Archive. At that time, the Aerospace Corp., a DOE contractor, expressed concerns over the high levels of Thorium 230 used to construct the Latty Avenue roadbed.
The report concludes that the radioactive materials used to build the road in the 1960s or 1970s most likely came from processing waste generated by the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis under contracts with the top secret Manhattan Project and later the Atomic Energy Commission. Analysis revealed that the high levels of Thorium 230 were evidence that the radioactive contamination was a byproduct of Congolese pitchblende, which is known to be the hottest uranium ore on the planet.
The pitchblende refined by Mallinckrodt was used to build the first atomic bombs.