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[cdn-nucl-l] Toxic dump a blast for nuclear families Radioactive site becoming hot spot
Posted in the Los Angeles Times on August 21, 2002 and at:
Toxic dump a blast for nuclear families
Radioactive site becoming hot spot
Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Weldon Spring, Mo. -- They had a little time after picking peaches and
before swimming, so Marie and Tom Burrows decided to take their grandson
Zack to the nation's newest tourist attraction: an enormous pile of
His flip-flops flapping as he ran, 9-year-old Zack Aiello scrambled up
the mini-mountain of boulders that entombs waste from decades of bomb
making: TNT, asbestos, arsenic, lead and, above all, uranium, purified
here in this St. Louis suburb to power the Atomic Age. From the top of
the mound, seven stories up, Zack scanned the sprawl of the dump.
"Cool," he judged.
"Am I glowing?" his grandma teased, laughing.
Talk about a tourist hot spot. After a cleanup that has lasted 16 years
and cost nearly $1 billion, the U.S. Department of Energy has opened
Weldon Spring to the public. Visitors can hike up the nuclear dump or
check out the Geiger counters in a new museum, set up in a building that
was once used to check uranium workers for contamination.
A six-mile bike trail on the property will open soon, winding past the
massive waste "containment cell" and along an old limestone quarry that
just a decade ago was packed with radioactive rubble, TNT residue and
crumpled metal drums oozing chemicals.
ONE OF MANY SITES
Weldon Spring is the first of more than 120 industrial sites in the U.S.
nuclear weapons complex to near complete cleanup. Even after billions of
dollars of high-tech scrubbing, many of them, like Weldon Spring, will
retain a radioactive repository. But federal officials maintain that
when the waste is entombed between thick layers of clay and rock, it's
safe for the public to visit.
At a time of fierce debate about the proposed nuclear repository at
Nevada's Yucca Mountain, proponents say that giving public tours of
containment cells may offer reassurance that radioactivity can be
Politicians in a dozen states have protested transportation routes that
would ship nuclear material through their turf. But at Weldon Spring,
families will soon be able to hike through a complex where clumps of
yellow uranium ore were scattered casually about as recently as the
The museum lays out every detail of the cleanup process, down to a photo
of a worker mowing the lawn in full protective gear and respirator.
Visitors can feel the impermeable synthetic liners used in the
containment cell, which covers 45 acres. They can study models showing
how the waste is trapped in the center of the dump, surrounded by clay
and stone barriers up to 40 feet thick.
Yet there's little information about why such elaborate precautions are
necessary -- little about the danger of radiation, the cancers many
uranium workers suffered, the environmental damage caused by federal
employees chucking radioactive waste in open-air lagoons through much of
the 1950s and '60s.
"There is nothing glamorous about the history of Weldon Spring," said
Dr. Daniel McKeen, a local pathologist who has long raised health
concerns about the site.
State officials bristle as well, saying that the museum may make people
think that every scrap of waste from decades of weapon production has
been locked inside the cell. In truth, uranium persists, at low levels,
along a spring in a nearby wildlife refuge. TNT from a World War I
ordnance factory at Weldon Spring has been found in drinking water two
miles away. Groundwater near the uranium plant is contaminated with a
dangerous chemical called trichloroethylene.
"This whole ribbon-cutting ceremony totally distracts from the remaining
work that needs to be done," said Ron Kucera, deputy director of the
Missouri Department of Natural Resources.