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
(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
“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.