Turning Nuke Waste Sites Into Playgrounds

  • Grassland prairie flowers from Weldon Spring, part of the Department of Energy's restoration effort to control erosion and add aesthetic beauty to the area. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy)

Across the U.S., there are more than 100 sites contaminated by radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.
The government is trying to return these Cold War relics to safe and useful purposes. Some of these once toxic zones are being treated much like public parks. The GLRC’s Kevin Lavery visited one that was recently opened to the public:


Across the US, there are more than 100 sites contaminated by radioactive waste from the
nation’s nuclear weapons programs. The government is trying to return these Cold War
relics to safe and useful purposes. Some of these once toxic zones are being treated much
like public parks. The GLRC’s Kevin Lavery recently visited one that was recently
opened to the public…

A thick grove of trees opens up to a clearing that reveals a white mound of limestone
rock. It rises like a tomb from some long-forgotten civilization, were it not for the water
towers and golf courses on the horizon.

Mike Leahy and his 9-year-old son Cameron came to this rock dome to catch the view
atop its 75 foot summit. But the real attraction was what they did not see:

“We read the sign and saw what was buried and how they did it, and – it’s kind of
disturbing, what’s in there.”

Beneath their feet lay more than a million cubic yards of spent uranium, asbestos and
PCB’s. The 45 acre mound is a disposal cell, where the government buried thousands of
barrels and tons of debris. That history didn’t bother young Cameron:

“It’s really cool. They keep all that nuclear waste under all that and it can’t harm

The Weldon Spring site, 30 miles west of St. Louis, Missouri began during World War
Two as an Army TNT factory. In the 1950’s, the plant refined yellow cake uranium for
later use in nuclear weapons. All that stopped in 1966 and all the radioactive waste just
sat there. Weldon Spring became an EPA Superfund site in 1987. After a 900 million
dollar cleanup, the site was opened to tourists in 2002.

(Sound of frogs)

Today, frogs sing in a native prairie at the foot of the cell. In April, officials opened a
hiking trail adjacent to a once-radioactive landfill. The route connects to a state park.

Weldon Spring is not a park per se, but project manager Yvonne Deyo says urban sprawl
prompted them to think like one:

“There’s subdivisions and lots of infrastructure going in…and that just kind of hits home
how important green space is, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do a little bit of
here at the site.”

Weldon Spring is one of about 100 such sites the Department of Energy is converting to
what it calls “beneficial re-use.” Many are becoming recreational venues. Another
closed uranium plant near Cincinnati is adding horseback riding trails. In Wayne, New
Jersey, a former thorium processing facility is becoming a baseball field. And a national
wildlife preserve is in the works at Rocky Flats, the site outside Denver that made the
plutonium cores of nuclear warheads.

The Department of Energy says Weldon Spring is safe for visitors – though some residual
contamination remains.

(Sound of Burgermeister Spring)

Burgermeister Spring runs through a 7-thousand acre state reserve adjacent to the site.
This is where uranium-laced groundwater from Weldon Spring rises to the surface.
Though the spring exceeds the EPA’s drinking water quality standard, there’s no warning
sign here. Officials say the contamination is so low that it poses no immediate public
hazard. The spring feeds into one of the most popular fishing lakes on the property.
Most visitors are surprised to hear that:


Jeff Boeving fishes for bass four or five times a month:

“(Does that concern you to hear that?) Yeah – absolutely…I mean, they’ve got a great
area out here and they’re kind of messing it up if they’re going to have contaminants, you know, going into it.”

The government’s vision of post-nuclear playgrounds is not without its critics. Arjun
Makhijani heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park,
Maryland. He says recreational sites near urban development zones risk losing their
original purpose:

“Institutional memory tends to be very short; after 30, 40, 50 years people forget, they
begin to develop the land, and pretty soon you could have houses, farms and schools in
the area. So it’s not necessary that it will stay recreational forever.”

Recreation is only one option the Department of Energy is considering for all of its sites.
In the last two years, the agency’s budget has doubled with the addition of nearly a dozen
radioactive properties. Officials say Congress has so far supported its fiscal requests.
And with the future of a proposed permanent nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain still
in doubt, even more tax dollars will likely be spent converting the nuclear dumps in
America’s backyards to a place where families play.

For the GLRC, I’m Kevin Lavery.

Related Links

Youth Rodeo on the Rise

No matter where you travel around the region, you’ll find kids
playing all kinds of organized sports – from baseball to bowling. But a
growing number of young people around the Great Lakes are embracing a
sport that’s traditionally been practiced in the Western U-S. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:


About a dozen boys and girls are gathered outside on a chilly, windy afternoon in Kent City,

Michigan dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hats. They’ve gome to practice the sport of rodeo. The

athletes specialize in different events, including barrel racing, goat tying and steer wrestling.

Tonight, they’re at Sue and Andy Sharp’s house to practice. Most of the kids bring their own

horses, and the Sharps have a few steers for roping and wrestling.

SUE: “You would like to be able to practice once or twice a week at least, if possible. Not all

the kids can do that, though, because some don’t have a place near them, and they have to travel

quite a ways.”

The Sharps met when they were both competing on the Pro Rodeo Circuit. But now, they’re passing on

their skills to a new generation of riders.

“In 1974, when I first started, and before that, there were rodeos. But nowhere near as many are

there now. When they went through the phase of the urban cowboy, it really started to grow east of

the Mississippi and got more notoriety and people started to get involved, and that’s continued


Still, rodeo riders aren’t exactly commonplace in these parts, but their ranks are steadily

growing – fed by the increasing number of high school rodeo teams and 4-H programs. In fact,

several of the current youth rodeo champs come from the Great Lakes States. Wisconsin is home to

the world champion high school bareback rider. Indiana hosts the world champion in pole bending.

And Michigan is the home of the national champion bull rider.

With programs like the Little Britches Rodeo Association, kids as young as toddlers can get

involved in the sport. Tonight, Cody Schmitz has the distinction of being the youngest one at the

practice session.

CODY: “I’m a bull rider.”

NELSON: “You’re a bull rider. How old are you?”

CODY: “Ten.”

NELSON: “Ten. And you ride a bull.”

CODY: “But I don’t ride, like, big bulls. I ride, like, these steers and stuff.”

Cody says just like other athletes, he gets nervous before a ride.

CODY: “You get butterflies and stuff, but once you get on, then they just go away and you’re just

having fun and sitting there. But it’s not very good to hang up.

NELSON: “What does that mean, to hang up?”

CODY: “Hang up as in, your hand’s still stuck in the rope and then it’s pulling and stuff. Well,

it’s not very good.”

Cody weighs about ninety pounds and stands just under five feet. But the steers can weigh hundreds

of pounds, so it’s a kind of understatement to say that rodeo can be dangerous. Just ask Matt

Kostel. He used to compete, but now he just watches from the sidelines.

“Had a little accident with a bull. He caught me in the forehead right here with a horn and put me

in the hospital. And they put plates in my forehead and screws and had to do reconstructive

surgery on me.”

Even so, Kostel hopes to someday return to the sport. For many – like Cody Schmitz – the rewards

outweigh the risks. Riders can win cash and even college scholarships. Cody’s only been competing

for a couple of years, but he’s already set his sights on becoming a pro. At tonight’s practice,

he’s decked out in a protective vest and mouth guard – ready to ride a steer.

(sound of rosin rubbing on rope)

“All right! Come on, Cody!”

Cody’s fourteen-year-old brother, Eric, helps him get ready: rubbing rosin on the rope for a

better grip. Then Eric and some of the other boys gather ’round to give Cody some final bits of


ERIC: “No matter what he does, keep shuffling your feet. Feel comfortable – start kicking.”

GUY 2: “Get right up on your hands, don’t get off it.”

Then Cody gives the signal, and they’re off.

GUYS: “Look at ’em buck, Cody! Look at ’em buck!”

The steer almost immediately throws cody to the ground, and the whole thing’s over in a matter of

seconds. Cody’s hurting from a hard fall on his elbow. But after a pep talk from his brother Eric,

he’s soon up and ready to ride again.

ERIC: “How bad do you want it?”

CODY: “Bad.”

ERIC: “Then you better try. Because without trying, you ain’t got nothing, right?”

CODY: “Right.”

This ride goes better for Cody. He’s able to hold on a little longer before getting bucked off.

It’s a close-knit group here tonight – not just the brothers, but all of the riders. And most say

they’ll continue riding, either as pros or just for fun, because, as Eric Schmitz says, rodeo is

as much a lifestyle as it is a sport.

“I mean, everybody’s together, everybody’s friends, you help each other out. I don’t know how to

explain it – it’s just kind of a cowboy deal, I guess. And I couldn’t imagine myself doing a thing


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson in Kent City, Michigan.