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The Wages of Nuclear


This is a powerful long-form piece on how the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, with the utter indifference toward disposing of nuclear waste that partially defined its domestic impact, is still creating horrible health impacts on Americans today, with a focus on a uranium enrichment plant near St. Louis.

Dawn Chapman first noticed the smell on Halloween in 2012, when she was out trick-or-treating with her three young children in her neighborhood of Maryland Heights, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis. By Thanksgiving, it was a stench—a mixture of petroleum fumes, skunk spray, electrical fire, and dead bodies—reaching the airport, the ballpark, the strip mall where Dawn bought her groceries. Dawn could smell the odor every time she got in her car, and then, by Christmas, she couldn’t not smell it. In January, the stench hung in the air inside her home when Dawn woke her children for school every morning. “That was the last straw,” she told me recently. Dawn made a call to City Hall asking about this terrible smell. The woman on the phone told Dawn she needed to call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, gave her the number, and abruptly hung up the phone. Dawn called the number, left a message, and then went on with her day.

Her youngest son was napping when the phone rang. Dawn was sitting on the top bunk in his bedroom folding laundry. The man on the phone introduced himself as Joe Trunko from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Joe spoke gently, slowly. He told Dawn that there is a landfill near her home, that it is an EPA Superfund site contaminated with toxic chemicals, that there has been an underground fire burning there since 2010. “These things happen sometimes in landfills,” he said. “But this one is really not good.”

Joe told Dawn that this landfill fire measures six football fields across and more than a hundred and fifty feet deep; it is in the floodplain of the Missouri River, less than two miles from the water itself, roughly twenty-seven miles upstream from where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi River before flowing out to the sea. “But to be honest, it’s not even the fire you should be worrying about,” Joe continued. “It’s the nuclear waste buried less than one thousand feet away.”

Joe explained how almost fifty thousand tons of nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project was dumped in the landfill illegally in 1973. He explained, so gently, that Dawn should be concerned that the fire and the waste would meet and that there would be some kind of “event.”

“Why isn’t this in the news?” Dawn asked.

“You know, Mrs. Chapman, that’s a really good question.”

It goes from there.

Even taking into account the creation of Superfund in 1980, the U.S. has never taken its toxic impact seriously. A big part of the reason for this is that people of color are pushed into neighborhoods near toxic sites and wealthy white people are far away. Like everything else about this racist nation, race plays a central role in our entire history of toxicity. The field of environmental justice appeared in the 1980s to deal with the history and scholarship around this, going along with local environmental justice campaigns that began in the 1970s as people, building on the civil rights movement, began to fight for their rights to not be poisoned. But as of this coincided with the long conservative movement that has perhaps reached its crescendo today, enforcement of the laws has slowly lagged and the money to clean this up disappeared.

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  • N__B

    I’m almost afraid to ask where the 50,000 tons of radioactive waster was stored 1945 to 1973.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      in a pole shed down by the railroad yards

      • N__B

        …if we’re lucky.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          okay, so it had a dirt floor and the weight of the stacked barrels crushed the wooden pallets underneath and the bottoms of the barrels got rusty soft and started to seep. at least the river was on the other side of the tracks

    • Linnaeus

      Hanford’s waste was all stored on site during its operating run from 1943 to 1987 (most of its reactors were decommissioned by 1970 or so). Cleanup started in 1989. They’re still cleaning it up.

      • Erik Loomis

        Have you read Kate Brown’s Plutopia?

        • Linnaeus

          Not yet, but it’s on my list. I’ve heard good things.

      • N__B

        That’s reasonably good news, in that Hanford is a big site and if the waste were badly stored it wouldn’t necessarily be poisoning the neighbors. But if everything there was on site until ’87, the waste dumped in ’73 had to come from elsewhere.

        • Linnaeus

          Certainly. The thing is, a lot of people don’t know that 1) nuclear sites kept waste on site and 2) just how old a lot of that waste is. We’ve never really had a good solution for the disposition of nuclear waste in practice.

          • N__B

            Older is better. It's biodegradable, right?

            • Hogan

              Isn’t that what “half-life” means?

            • njorl

              Better than that, it degrades without any bio. Eventually, it will all become perfectly harmless lead.

              • BiloSagdiyev

                I sure I hope I live to see that day!

        • Aexia

          Some of it is stored in under ground tanks that have been used long past their expected survival. The plumes have been spreading towards the Columbia River. So on top of all the various sorts of radioactive waste, they also have to deal with contaminated ground soil.

          • BigHank53

            I once spoke with someone who’d worked with those storage tanks. There are no records of what was thrown into them in the forties and fifties–not that that would help much after six decades of slow fission and breakdown products. They’re not only radioactive, but the stuff in them in frisky enough that they get physically hot too. They periodically pump in cooling water. The entertaining part is that there’s no way to monitor the stuff in the tank: it’s so hellishly radioactive in there that any sensor placed in the tank dies. They use neutron scattering detectors to monitor levels from outside.

            • Michael Cain

              My cousin works for one of the smaller companies that designs clean-up plans for hazardous/toxic waste sites. They were invited to bid parts of the Hanford job. After going through the classified records they were allowed to see, the risk management folks said, “It’s a bet the business proposition. Just say no to the invite.”

              The vitrification plan for Hanford looks to have reached start-over status — the plant doesn’t work, and the designers don’t seem to have any idea how the problems with the process can be solved.

        • Latverian Diplomat

          If the waste is from the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge would be the most likely candidate, I think.

  • Rob in CT

    IIRC, these underground landfill fires are a real pain to deal with, kind of like fires in old abandoned coal mines…

    For what it’s worth, wiki:

    In 1973, after having changed hands (and responsible oversight) several times, B&K Construction Co., a company contracted by Cotter Corporation, dumped a portion of the original stored radioactive material at a nearby storage facility. 8,700 short tons (7,900 t) of leached barium sulfate, the material with the lowest relative radioactivity, was combined with 39,000 short tons (35,000 t) of topsoil to dilute the contaminated material at the landfill.[7][8][9] The leached barium sulfate was a byproduct of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ uranium enrichment program as a part of the Manhattan Project and later nuclear weapons production.[10] and dumping it there was illegal.[11] Due to the discovery of the radioactive and other contaminants at the site, West Lake was proposed as a Superfund site in October 1989, and was officially listed as such a site in August 1990.[12]

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered the disposal and investigated the site, publishing a report in 1977.[13]

    West Lake was proposed to be a Superfund site on October 28, 1989,[14] and the EPA placed the landfill on the National Priorities List, designating it as a Superfund site on August 30, 1990.[citation needed] The EPA has listed four potentially responsible parties: the US Department of Energy; the Cotter Corporation; and Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries.[1] EPA directed those parties to undertake investigations and evaluations consistent with CERCLA (Superfund) guidance.[2]

    After decades of investigation, including multiple studies, public meetings, and public comment periods, the EPA selected a final site cleanup plan.[4][15] In 2008, the EPA announced that they would contain the contaminated sites by placing a multilayered cover over 40 acres (16 ha) of OU-1.[4][16][17] The EPA plan also required institutional controls and monitoring of the site.[4][18] After receiving additional comments from environmental groups and the general public, the EPA asked the potentially responsible parties to commission a study of alternative cleanup options.[1][19][17][20] The resulting supplemental feasibility study was released in 2011.[17]

    In 2012, following consultation with the EPA National Remedy Review Board, the EPA asked the potentially responsible parties to gather more data and perform additional evaluations.[19] After conducting an aerial survey of the site and surrounding areas in 2013, the EPA reported that the radioactive waste remained contained within OU-1 and posed no safety risk to outlying areas.[21]

    The West Lake landfill has drawn further scrutiny because of a nearby subsurface smoldering fire (in OU-2), and event located only 1,000 feet (300 m) away from OU-1.[22] If the fire were to reach the OU-1 area of radioactive waste, the radiation risks are low.[23]

    I don’t have the chops to evaluate that last line.
    Anyway, the EPA *has* been dealing with this landfill under Superfund. The process takes forever, for many reasons (some of them are even good).

    ETA: more:


    Since the discovery of the smoldering fire, Republic Services ordered an isolation barrier be built (September 2013), which will prevent smoldering sanitary waste from reaching the radioactive waste stored in OU-1.[47]

    The EPA, working in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the US Army Corps of Engineers and others, announced a decision in December, 2015, to install a physical isolation barrier for the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site. The plan recommends the installation of other engineering controls, including cooling loops, to prevent any potential impacts in the unlikely event that the subsurface smoldering event came in contact with the radioactive materials on the site.[48]

    Further, landfill owners plan to install a cap over the North Quarry, create trenches to capture liquid and gas underneath the cap, in addition to improving techniques used to monitor gas.[47]

    Now, the fire has to be releasing some toxic fumes even if it never gets to the nuke waste. It’s an underground dumpster fire, after all.

    ETA: just to be clear, I’m just trying to provide additional info, not to say that everything is awesome.

  • Rob in CT

    This is kind of an aside, but the back history on this situation is a window into a very different world.

    That bit about the stuff being dumped illegally in 1973? That – illegal dumping (or incineration, or whatever) of this or that nasty crap – was happening all over the place at the time. My sense is that there was a frantic period where there was more of it precisely because rules & regs were coming down and there was this “well shit, we gotta get rid of this stuff now now now!” reaction. Add to it that the jokes about mobsters being in the waste disposal business are… not exactly made up from nothing. So many of these guys were simultaneously unethical and kind of dumb (huh, that sounds familiar!).

    Lots of stuff I see at work entails sites with usage histories dating back decades. Even the ones that merely date to the 80s often read like they’re from another world. Hell, even the early 90s.

    “Yeah, so in ’85 we pulled a bunch of tanks.”
    “Ok, how’d they look? Did you take any samples?”
    “No records of any of that. No we didn’t do any testing. The fire department signed off on it I think.”
    “Ok, what about the tank pull in ’92?”
    “Um, err, got nothing on that one either. But that contamination we’ve found now is totally from the older set of tanks. Pinky swear!” [of course, that last bit doesn’t matter much, unless you’re arguing over insurance coverage for said contamination]

    Nowadays you pull the tanks, you document their condition, you take soil samples from the tank grave, and if you find anything* you notify DEP and you go back and you test groundwater (either b/c the consultant doing the work just knows they gotta or because DEP gets around to ordering it). The tanks themselves are better. The tests are more sensitive. None of this is perfect because there is no perfection. But like I said, it’s like a different world. For some who lived through the changes and were paying attention, it’s obvious. It also becomes obvious even if you didn’t, when you read enough of these site histories.
    * – ok, not anything but the thresholds tend to be pretty low, particularly in comparison to 20 years ago.

  • Like everything else about this racist nation, race plays a central role in our entire history of toxicity.

    there was nothing racist about the decades of pollution and the 1M+ pounds of PCBs GE gave the towns of Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, NY. it’s all white people, 50 miles in any direction. that was just plain old fashioned greed, and ignorance, but mostly greed.


    • Rob in CT

      Would you settle for “major role” cleek?
      Shit flows downhill.
      Rich to poor.
      White to black.
      The less powerful a community is, the less able the people in it are to fight back.

      • The less powerful a community is, the less able the people in it are to fight back.

        that’s the key.

        race is tangled up in that. but it’s really about power.

    • dogboy

      Judy Pasternak draws a pretty straight line between the money made and the people harmed

      From the 1930s to the 1960s, the United States knowingly used and
      discarded an entire tribe of people as the Navajos worked, unprotected,
      in the uranium mines that fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War.

      Resolution of that shit dragged on into the 2000s.

      • there are no Navajos in Hudson Falls NY,

        • firefall

          well, not now, sure

  • Victor_Matheson

    My Grandfather ran Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver. It is a highly contaminated Superfund site containing large amounts of unaccounted for plutonium waste, among other things. My Grandfather was a huge environmentalist as well. He was a prominent advocate for solar and wind back in the 1970s, way before our current wave of renewable energy expansion.

    I asked him once about this dichotomy – being an environmentalist and running a factory that became one of the most expensive Superfund sites in the country. His answer was that he thought he was fighting a war with very dangerous Soviet Empire. He figured that a bit a radioactive waste would be nothing compared to environmental damage of the US getting nuked by 30K Soviet warheads.

    I always thought that was interesting response. Any type of war, and especially a nuclear war, certainly isn’t good for the environment, and preventing nuclear war through maintaining an adequate nuclear deterrent was the environmental choice for him.

    • Dune

      I have heard anecdotes that one way the Federal government planned to restore agricultural production in areas affected by fallout was simply scraping away contaminated topsoil. So I believe in the damage caused by a possible nuclear exchange, and the further damage entailed in reconstruction. “What do you mean environmental regulations on emissions? We need this steel factory operating at full capacity to rebuild our cities!”

    • Michael Cain

      Yes, but siting the facility 30 miles upwind of a major metro area doesn’t seem like the smartest thing.

  • The dirty little secret of nuclear is that when you take into account the waste, it is not really that clean. Nuclear provides clean generation, but not clean waste.

    • Lurker

      It depends on how you define “a lot”. Nuclear power production does produce waste but the amount is relatively low compared to the amount of power produced. The greater problem is that the final disposal is not solved in most countries. When the solution is clear, however, the space required for final disposal is not that much. For example, in Finland, the medium- and low level waste of the operating power plants is disposed in two deep underground sites, and the space taken is not that much. The waste produced by one plant during its lifetime fits in a silo about 20 meters in diameter and 40 meters deep.

      We also have, in Finland, a high-level waste disposal facility under construction in Olkiluoto, Eurajoki. The spent fuel from five reactors will fit in a disposal area about 1 km times 2 km square, 400 m below ground. For both the low level and high level waste, the environmental requirement is that no person, in any generation from now until a million years hence, may receive more than 1 mSv/a even in an accidental condition, with no precautions observed. As far as I understand, the example person is assumed to live right above the site, pursuing subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing, drinking milk from her own does posturing there and collecting a lot of mushrooms and berries from the forest, thus maximizing her dose. In my opinion, if such calculations are done honestly and the disposal is done according to the approved design, the solution is acceptable from intergenerational fairness standpoint.

      So, the problem seems to be manageable, though it is expensive. However, the issues with the US nuclear waste are of completely different magnitude. Especially “legacy military waste” is often horrible stuff and often in forms that are much more difficult to handle than spent nuclear fuel.

      • I think it is impossible to project what land use and even conditions will be like even a few decades from now. The Svalbard seed vault flooding, and all that.

        • Erik Loomis

          You know, that seed vault should have been obviously unstable to anyone following the basic impact of the climate change on the polar regions.

      • Latverian Diplomat

        In addition. The transuranics could be “burned” in alternative reactor designs like an LFTR. This requires processing of the waste that raises proliferation concerns, so that approach has been deeply discouraged, IIRC.

    • FosterBoondoggle

      Nothing is really clean except wind, solar and hydro, and even those aren’t 100% clean once you take manufacturing into account. I’m pretty sure I saw somewhere that coal-fired electric generation puts more radioactive pollution into the environment than nuclear plants.

      If we could get some agreement about where to put the high-level waste away from the human environment for 100,000 years, a-la-Lurker, we’d have a pretty decent baseload power source. But we can’t, so instead we’re going to make the planet uninhabitably hot in 100 years.

  • Foster Boondoggle

    Calling this stuff “nuclear waste” is really misleading. It’s tailings from the process of extracting uranium from ore. (See http://westlakelandfill.com/History.aspx.) If this source and wikipedia are correct about what’s at the site, nothing there was ever anywhere near a nuclear reactor or bomb plant. Given how people respond to the words “radiation” and “nuclear”, this sort of fear-mongering is potentially harmful. (There’s evidence, for example, that the Japanese civil response to Fukushima caused more harm than the radiation. Which is certainly true in the US, where west coasters were taking KI pills potentially damaging their thyroids thanks to bogus radiation maps being spread on fb.)

    Not to say that barium sulfate left over from U refining is necessarily something you want your toddler to be playing in, but that’s probably true of almost anything in a landfill.

    • Victor_Matheson

      So, here is a related story about Rocky Flats. Other family friends were involved in the cleanup. I asked how much plutonium waste was stored at the site, and he said about 50 tons. That seemed like way too much, so I asked him to elaborate. Roughly, he said they took about a pound of the nastiest stuff and encased it in a one ton block of cement. They had 50 of these big blocks sitting around, so 50 tons of the worst kind of waste.

      (Note: this the gist of long ago conversations, so don’t kill me about technical details being off.)

  • HugeEuge

    It’s a thunderstorm here and my dog is under the desk in my basement study panting anxiously 500 pants a minute like he always does in a thunderstorm, and after reading this I may get down under there with him because how far from hell are we when there are enormous underground fires near where we live. It’s like something out of Bosch. Perhaps to appease the fire god down below we should cut a hole in the earth above the fire and feed Cabinet officials into it like the Carthaginians throwing babies into the mouth of Baal.

  • Gareth

    “Karen did look into it and learned that many of her classmates and neighbors and childhood friends had died of leukemias and brain cancers and appendix cancers—rare in the general population, but, again, apparently common among those who live or had lived near the creek. It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.”

    I can’t find the statistical analysis that the author did to establish that it couldn’t be a coincidence. Is there an appendix?

  • dl

    Not to mention, episode 108 of Twin Peaks, the other day.

  • Michael Newsham

    The Yami tribe on Orchid Island here in Taiwan were told the government was building docks for a fish-processing plant so they could ship their production to the mainland. It was actually to handle nuclear waste from the rest of Taiwan. Put it as far away from the people generating it as possibe

  • namgalsipsclar

    From the article:
    Radiation is around us always, and each of us are exposed to radiation on a daily basis: from the sun, from the dirt, from sources we would never think to suspect. We ourselves are a source of radiation, since each of us also contains radioactive elements we carry inside our bodies from birth. Throughout our lives we are constantly irradiating one another, not only with charged microscopic particles but also with suspicion and fear and blame. We find infinite directions in which to project our rage and bewilderment and grief.

    This passage makes me really shake my head and wonder about the accuracy of the entire rest of the piece. In the service of a somewhat dubious metaphor, the author misstates the hell out of what’s going on in terms of humans being sources of radiation. Sure, there are trace amounts of radioactive elements inside you. But you and everyone you love are also constantly emitting quite a lot of electromagnetic radiation simply by virtue of having a temperature above absolute zero.


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