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.”

A War of Words

Environmentalist Kay Drey continues to advocate for the removal of waste from the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill

first published at, Jan. 23, 2015

“It just makes me sick,” say Kay Drey. The 81-year-old dean of the St. Louis environmental movement is sitting at her dining room table, which is scattered with various paperwork, including two dogeared reports issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in the 1980s.

As the sun streams through a window of her University City home on this mild January morning, she bemoans the state of affairs related to the stalled clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a nearby St. Louis County suburban municipality.

The NRC reports to which she refers both candidly recommend the removal of the radioactively-contaminated materials from the landfill, which is located in the Missouri River flood plain upstream from water intakes for the city of St. Louis.

The waste, a byproduct of decades of uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the government’s nuclear weapons program, was illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago. Drey has been fighting various regulatory agencies to get it removed for almost as long.

On this day, Drey’s voice is failing. It can’t compete with Moxie, the family’s small dog, who yaps at a visitor’s feet. After the canine commotion subsides and breakfast dishes are cleared, Drey explains what is bothering her.

“They’re not talking about digging it up,” she says.

Removing the radioactively-contaminated materials from the St. Louis area to a federally-licensed nuclear waste depository in the sparsely-populated West has long been her goal.

In 2008, Drey and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment challenged the EPA’s record of decision on West Lake, which would have mandated a relatively cheap fix — capping the landfill with dirt and leaving the nuclear materials in place. Republic Services, the liable landfill owner, favors this remedy, which would allow the contamination to continue migrating into the ground water. The final decision is still up in the air along with noxious landfill fumes that have been the bane of nearby residents for the last four years.

Since 2010, public outrage over the issue has grown due to an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill, which is part of the same EPA Superfund site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is overseeing efforts to contain the fire, which is moving in the direction of the radioactive waste. To bolster DNR’s authority, the Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed suit against Republic for various infractions. Splitting responsibility for dealing with the problem between the state and federal agencies has led to further bureaucratic snafus. One of the impasses involves a state-mandated barrier wall to stop the fire from advancing.

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Drey and other activists advocate turning the clean up over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has remediated other St. Louis radioactive sites under the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which targets sites contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from World War II. Gaining congressional approval for such a change has not happened, however, despite efforts by the activists to spur the St. Louis congressional delegation to sponsor the requisite federal legislation.

Meanwhile, Republic, the responsible party, keeps pushing the original capping proposal. The company’s public relations efforts have included backing a rural-based front group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe which is against shipping radioactive material through the state. The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, via their twitter feed, routinely uses the words “capping” and “encapsulation” to mean the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably by the group, but “encapsulation” is not part of the 2008 Record of Decision issued by the EPA. The confusion of terms is not clear to a casual observer or to many members of the Coalition as seen in the tweets they post.

As the debate wears on, Drey sees support for removal of the waste waning. But she’s standing her ground. There is no compromise on this subject when viewed from her eyes. Those who consider capping as an option are abandoning the goal. In her opinion, it is indefensible to leave deadly radioactive waste to drain inevitably into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers forever.

Drey also sees how language is being used to obfuscate the issue. Supporters of capping the landfill often use the word “encapsulation” to describe the plan to leave the waste in the floodplain, leaking into the aquifer.

To make her point, Drey gets up from the dining room table and retrieves a worn dictionary from a bookshelf. She runs her index finger down the page to the entry and recites the definition: “Encapsulate: to encase in or as if in a capsule.”

“Does a capsule have just a top?” she asks.

Yours Truly, Seriously Nuked

chart.jpgA St. Louis epidemic of tinea capitas, aka ringworm of the scalp, was treated with unshielded head X-Rays in the 1950s

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 12, 1994


In the middle of an asphalt schoolyard more than a half a century ago, I stood alone, doffed my skull caps and flung them in the air. Both homemade yarmulkes were secular creations — byproducts of the nuclear age — the outer one fashioned from a white cotton sock, its inner lining sewn from nylon hosiery.

To me, they were symbols of separateness at public elementary school that year. A year in which I had often been segregated from classmates. But now it was spring, a long-awaited reprieve had finally been granted. Health officials ruled my condition no longer posed a threat to other students. I could attend the coming school picnic with no chance of infecting others. On my way home that day, my 7-year-old bald head felt the wind and sun for the first time since the previous fall.

I missed more than a month of the school year in 1957 and 1958. But the unpleasant memories would be tossed away, forgotten like my discarded skull caps in the schoolyard, and the parental reprimand I received for not disposing of them properly. My hair would grow back. A summer of bicycles and hoola-hoops awaited.

My case of “tinea capitis” or ringworm of the scalp, as it is commonly called, sank into an abyss of statistical insignificance like an unknown factor within a lost equation. The fungi that had attacked my hair follicles were eliminated by what was then considered a normal medical procedure. But uncertainties that have since arisen from the X-ray treatment I received for this benign childhood disease will continue to shadow me for the rest of my life.

A decade after my own treatment at St. Louis’ Children’s Hospital, a scientific study estimated that the scalps of irradiated ringworm patients had been exposed to as many as 800 rads of unfiltered X-rays, with lesser amounts being absorbed by the brain, cranial marrow, head, neck, parotid, pituitary and thyroid glands.

My medical record shows I received five overlapping dosages of radiation, which each measured 353 roentgens. A roentgen calculates the air dosage, whereas a rad indicates the amount of absorbed ionizing radiation to the tissue. Other measurements have now supplanted these units, but according to one expert, administering multiple-doses of this degree was not uncommon. By contrast, a person who receives a diagnostic chest X-ray absorbs about .02 of one rad.

Ringworm patients in my category have been used for comparative analyses along side Japanese atomic bomb survivors and Marshall Islanders who were exposed to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Subsequent scientific papers have indicated that over time there have been significant increases in tumors as well as skin, thyroid and brain cancers among those who received the X-Ray treatment. One study has also correlated more psychiatric problems among irradiated ringworm patients.

By 1959 — a little more than a year after I had contracted tinea capitis the accepted treatment for the disease had changed. An anti-fungal agent called “griseofulvin” became the standard remedy. X-ray therapy is no longer applied to those who have ringworm of the scalp. But before use of the method ended, an estimated 200,000 children worldwide underwent irradiation, with perhaps 10 percent of those cases originating in the United States.

Ringworm of the scalp is but one of a number of different related fungi, which adds to the confusion over the disease. A Hungarian bacteriologist isolated the cause in 1843 and named it “Microsporon Audouini,” after a French scientist who specialized in the study of silkworms. This false association distracted scientists for sometime. The painful cure for the disease back then involved pulling a child’s hair out by its roots. Later in the 19th century, another French researcher, Raymond Sabouraud, recommended X-ray treatments as a more humane alternative. The radiation procedure that began to be used in 1910 took the name of two later researchers and was called the Adamson-Keinbock technique. It was widely used to treat post-World War II epidemics.

After receiving my X-ray dose, a family doctor later diagnosed I had a thyroid condition. The physician, Eugene Hall, is now retired and has yet to be located. However, my hospital record includes a letter from my mother mentioning a rash that developed around the time of my X-ray treatment. A response from the hospital’s chief of clinics tersely dismissed her complaint that the rash still had not subsided seven months after the X ray treatment.

According to a scientific report published just last year (1993), “the association between thyroid cancer and exposure to ionizing radiation was suggested as early as 1950.” Nevertheless, Children’s Hospital continued the use the Adamson-Keinbock technique for at least another eight years.

Roy Shore, the author of the study, states that “thyroid cancer risks appear to be greater following irradiation at younger ages.” Shore, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University Medical School, has been involved in a series of follow-up studies on the subject since 1976. His most recent report concludes that “a lifelong risk seems probable since several studies have found excess risk in their irradiated groups for 50 years or more.”

In a telephone interview last week, Shore speculated on the reason why such X-ray treatments continued unabated through the 1950s. “Number one, there were probably not a whole lot (of physicians) who were aware of the potential for thyroid cancer. It was not a very prominent finding back then,” said Shore. “But secondly, I would think that most radiologists didn’t think there was any appreciable dose to the thyroid gland. Indeed, it’s very small compared the dose to the scalp itself.”

The First Secret City

A knock at my door woke me up before 8 a.m. one morning in June 2013. When I peeped out the window, the two men on my front porch struck me as being Mormons at first glance. I soon found out, however, that the neatly dressed pair were not concerned about my salvation but whether I was a terrorist.

The FBI agents departed my apartment a half hour later, after I debriefed them on the subject of my documentary and assured them that my activities were not intent upon disturbing domestic tranquility. My cooperation with federal law enforcement included naming my collaborator, the co-director of this film. So in a very real sense, I am an FBI informant.

The G-men had been dispatched to my doorstep by the Department of Homeland Security, after my license plate number had been turned over by a security guard at the Mallinckrodt Chemical plant on North Broadway in St. Louis. The security guard had stopped us on a public street on a Sunday morning, wanting to know why we were photographing the facility. He told us then that our names would be provided to Homeland Security, but I had dismissed the warning as an idle threat.

The agents were stern but polite. I did most of the talking, filling the silence in my living room with pleas of innocence. They wanted to know if I had any terrorists intentions. I told them we were making a documentary on the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt had created as a part of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.

The agents seemed surprised. They said they were unaware of the issue.

They are not alone.

In the 70-plus years since Mallinckrodt first began generating radioactive waste as a byproduct of its government-sponsored uranium processing work, a majority of St. Louisans have remained uninformed about the contamination that continues to threaten their health and the environment.

As a reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, I had covered the issue decades earlier, beginning in the early 1990s. I became reintroduced to the subject in 2008 when my editor at Illinois Times in Springfield sent me a thick press packet that had been sent to the newspaper. The contents of the manila envelope had been assembled by Larry Burgan, a former steelworker from Granite City, Ill. who had been exposed to radioactive contamination in his former work place. Burgan had started a one-man campaign to shed light on the problem that impacted not only his fellow workers but nearby residents of the plant in Venice, Ill. where had worked.

Months went by before I started going over the materials Burgan had painstaking collated. After reading it, I called him and asked for an interview. I then wrote a story based on Burgan’s research for an online magazine FOCUS/midwest in May 2009 and did a follow-up that September. But unlike hundreds of other stories I had written in my journalism career, I didn’t let this one go. I began investigating the subject further myself.

In early 2010, I enlisted the support of a local videographer and started working on a film on this subject. That project ended more than two years later because of a disagreement over the content and direction of the film. Countless hours of hard work was lost as a result.

In late 2012, my original idea was revived with the help of my new partner Alison Carrick, the co-director and cinematographer of The First Secret City. Without her hard work and devotion to this project the film would have never been completed. Her understanding of the issue and the narrative form combined with a keen eye and an uncompromising dedication to the creative process can be seen and felt in every frame of this film.

The title is based on the little-known-about role that St. Louis played in the making of the first atomic bomb. Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated  landfill. The First Secret City reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

–C.D. Stelzer